Skip to content

History of Submarine Aircraft Carriers

November 16, 2009

Japanese I-400 submarine aircraft carrier.

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. All 3 were ready for combat when the war came to an end in 1945, but their impact by then likely would have been limited. Combined Fleet has more details: 

 While Japan built many submarines that were larger than those of other Navies, the three Sen Toku boats were far larger than anything ever seen before.  Some 60% larger than the largest contemporary American submarine, USS Argonaut, they had more than twice her range.  The most unusual feature was that they each carried three floatplane bombers (and parts for a fourth), a feat never achieved by any other class of submarine.  These aircraft folded to fit into the 115-foot cylindrical hangar, which was slightly offset to starboard and opened forward to access the catapult.  The huge double hull was formed of parallel cylindrical hulls so that it had a peculiar lazy-eight cross section, and may have inspired the Soviet Typhoon-class built some 40 years later.  Although aircraft must be considered their primary armament, they also carried a formidable torpedo battery and the usual 14cm deck gun.  Anti-aircraft armament included ten 25mm cannons in three triple mounts and one single.  Each of these boats had radar and a snorkel. 

Before the war Britain experimented with aircraft launched from its M class boats,  large monitor submarines with a 12 inch gun. Taking the place of the main battery was a hangar and a small seaplane, as Wikipedia describes:

Her 12-inch gun was removed, replaced by a small aircraft hangar, the work being completed in 1928. This could carry a small Parnall Peto seaplane, specially designed for the M2 and which could be launched by hydraulic catapult within a few minutes of surfacing. The aircraft would land alongside the submarine on completion of its sortie and be winched aboard using a crane. The submarine was to operate ahead of the battle fleet in a reconnaissance role, flying off her seaplane as a scout.


British Submarine M-2 retrieves her seaplane.

Also 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. Not surprisingly, these Focke Achgelis Fa 330 were also known as rotor kites.

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.


Special operations troops prepare to launch a UAV from the deck of submarine USS Alabama.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2012 12:57 pm

    Well they left out some of the Japanese Subs as a number of I boats where configured with a catapolt and float plane. The Japanese never got away from using submarines in anything besides a secondary role (scout, suppling troops, minisub ops). The I400 never was seen by the Soviets (they asked to see it as part of the agreeement between the allies with regards to captured material). The US after a cursory examination was very worried about some of the technology, in particular the torpedoes, to get into Soviet hands. The I400 class was scuttled in deep water off Oahu where it remains today. Regarding the use of drones launched from submarines, this has been looked at and is actually dooable in a low ASW environment – particularly with regard to the war on terrorism (which is occuring all over despite the press’s coverage)…..What we really need is SEAVIEW’s Flying Sub!

  2. Hudson permalink
    November 17, 2009 5:20 pm

    TRIPLE M strikes me as a very German idea. During WWII, the Germans produced an amazing variety of prototypes for weapons systems. This became a problem when they couldn’t make up their mind which invention to produce. They could have had a working jet fighter in spring 1941(Heinkel) but dickered over which jet engine to produce, plus there were technical problems. In contrast, when the Soviets experienced a shortage of mortars at the beginning of the war, they established a Mortar Design Bureau, which picked out an adequate design for different calibers, and manufactured tens of thousands of mortars. As Mike B. says “quantity has its own quality.”

    I suppose there might be situations where launching a small UAV from the snort might be useful, or firing the auto cannon on a shore or sea target. Surprise! It seems to me that the sub is strongest when it is submerged and silent. What ever happened to the anti-air missile fired from underwater? Anyway, interesting to know about, this TRIPLE M.

  3. Scott B. permalink
    November 17, 2009 9:06 am

    Something for Mike B. (and the rest of the distinguished audience) :

    TRIPLE M – a modular system for versatile tasks

    (PDF, 2MB)

  4. Tarl permalink
    November 17, 2009 6:30 am

    During the Cold War the Soviet Navy never seriously contemplated aircraft carrying submarines,

    That’s because the right answer is not aircraft-carrying subs, but long-range maritime strike aircraft and subs armed with ASCMs. A sub-launched aircraft versus carrier-based aircraft is going to lose every time.

    Well, the troops on land seem to think the UAVs quite handy for a variety of missions. Since the principle role of an SSN close to shore is reconnaissance, the potential for this ability via aerial spying seems tremendous.

    Launching, recovering, and communicating with UAVs to control them would potentially compromise the subs location. Seems to me what they want is a UAV that is launched from somewhere else that produces the data they can use.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 17, 2009 5:12 am

    “Armed sub-launched UAVs, well, I’m of two minds here.”

    Part of the attraction of submarine aircraft carriers in the wars years and beyond was their potential for hit and run attacks. In other words, the enemy wouldn’t know what hit them until it was too late.

    Basically, the principle is ongoing with the land attack missile launched from subs, which is probably the most efficient way for this concept. But who knows about the future?

  6. Hudson permalink
    November 17, 2009 2:38 am


    Interesting story about U-1105. According to the link, the U boat is resting flat on the bottom with 65 feet of water over the conning tower. The sub I saw had about a third of the bow out of water at an angle. I assume the stern was resting on the bottom. It has to be a different ship.

  7. leesea permalink
    November 17, 2009 1:24 am

    The U-1105 Black Panther is now part of the Maryland Maritime Archeology Program an underwater history site. Sub was sunk off Piney Point, MD. Goto:

  8. Graham Strouse permalink
    November 17, 2009 1:06 am


    I agree submarine launched UAVs would have considerable recon value, particularly for COIN missions. Armed sub-launched UAVs, well, I’m of two minds here. Regardless, maybe it’s time to tinker with some more of our Ohios again….

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    November 16, 2009 6:17 pm

    Jed asked “UAV’s that could easily be flown from a sub the size of a USN SSGN – but what for ? ”

    Well, the troops on land seem to think the UAVs quite handy for a variety of missions. Since the principle role of an SSN close to shore is reconnaissance, the potential for this ability via aerial spying seems tremendous.

    Thanks to all for the links and extra info.

    I meant to say this was an update of an article I posted a year ago.

  10. B. Walthrop permalink
    November 16, 2009 3:42 pm

    Slightly off topic, but some relatively light summer reading on the topic of Japanese submarine aircraft carriers here:


  11. Hudson permalink
    November 16, 2009 3:38 pm

    While we’re on the subject of submarines:

    Years ago, in the 1950s, my family vacationed along the Eastern shore. I have vague memories of Hattaras and the ribs of old wrecks washed ashore. It was at Hattaras or Cape May or one of those places that a WWII sub was sunk about 200 yards offshore, bow out of the water. Never seen anything like it before or since. The story, if I rember correctly, was that an accident happened to a US sub and part of the sub was flooded and sealed off, leaving a number of sailors entombed aboard–maybe why the sub was not moved.

    Is it still there today? Does anyone know the ship and story?

  12. Chuck Hill permalink
    November 16, 2009 3:04 pm

    More good history here:

    French Surcouf is notable prewar experiment.

  13. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 16, 2009 2:50 pm

    For some very fine imagery of the I-400 class of submarine aircraft carriers see this thread over at Scroll down to entry # 12 for three views of these amazing WW-II IJNS submarines.

    High-tech WWII Japanese subs found off Hawaii

  14. D. E. Reddick permalink
    November 16, 2009 2:26 pm


    One correction: of the three I-400 boats launched and commissioned into service with the IJNS, only I-400 & I-401 were operational as aircraft-carriers. I-402 was converted into a submersible tanker while building.

  15. Jed permalink
    November 16, 2009 2:23 pm

    MQ8 FireScout, Schiebel S100 Camcopter – VTOL UAV’s that could easily be flown from a sub the size of a USN SSGN – but what for ?

    Did you guys have the Jerry Anderson puppet based cartoon “Stingray” when you were kids ? I seem to remember a colour, live actor TV show called “Journey to the bottom of the sea” that had flying-subs too !

    The point being it was science “fiction” (which always eventually comes true, but at what price ?)


  1. Return of the Submarine Gunboat « New Wars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: