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Amazing Aircraft Carrier Alternatives #5

November 24, 2008

Submersible Aircraft Carriers

The US Navy is very close to possessing a sub-to-surface aerial vehicle, a “flying Sub” in the Tomahawk Block IV cruise missiles. The latest version of the highly effective Tomahawk that is fired from torpedo tubes has the ability to loiter for hours and change targets in mid-course. It is still an expendable weapon though, meaning it can’t return to the parent vessel for rearming. It can only be a matter of time, we think, until a true sub-launched UAV is built with Tomahawk technology, or perhaps the missile itself adapted for this role.

The only nation in history to make practical use of aircraft launched from submarines were the Japanese in World War 2. The large I-400 class weighed 5223 tons on the surface and carried 3 seaplanes. Before the war Britain experimented with aircraft launched from its M2 boat, while the US conducted similar tests on its S-1 from 1923-1926.


The Germans experimented with autogyros from their subs. Attached to a long cable from the parent vessel, the craft were used for surveillance duties.

During the Cold War the Soviet Navy never seriously contemplated aircraft carrying submarines, while the USN initiated several studies. Under the title Project Flying Carpet, plans were from a 10,000 ton vessel able to carry 8 aircraft in 2 hangars. The initial aircraft dubbed AN-1 was a modified F-11 Tiger naval fighter, which already possessed the required folding wings.

Testing was carried out on the Regulus cruise missile submarine USS Grayback, which had a large hangar. Since there was no way for the planes to land on a return trip, future testing would have involved more practical VTOL aircraft. In any event the ship was never built, with the Navy siting dubious operational requirements as well as the lack of shipbuilding capacity, as the US SSBN and nuclear attack submarines programs got under full steam.

Plans continue for launching unmanned aerial vehicles from submarines in the War on Terror. Northrop has proposed using the sub-launched Tomahawk’s vertical tubes for UAVs from a stealthy affordable capsule system (SACS). Raytheon plans a similar test next year, launching the craft from a submerged submarine’s trash disposal unit!

Several issues argue against using a manned flying sub for this role, including the space limitations on US submarines. Most importantly is the technical problems arising from such an undertaking that will undoubtedly (given past history) lead to decades long R&D, much like the successful but troubled attempt to create a helicopter that flies like an airplane, the V-22 Osprey, as one example. While we’ve no doubt US industry and the Military can do most anything its sets its mind to, the question soon arises if such a costly undertaking is really necessary. The added cost of a manned flying sub as Congress and the US public grow increasingly weary of Big Ticket arms which are often useless for the wars we most often fight, would also be a cause to discard such a daunting undertaking.

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