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Could You Merge an Aircraft Carrier and a Submarine? Meet the Sub-Carrier

Russia Admiral Kuznetsov
Russia's Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Sub-Carrier: An idea whose time has come? The idea of taking the classic aircraft carrier and submarine and doing new and unique things with them has been floated for many years now. So why not take the idea of somehow merging an aircraft carrier and submarine into one unit in some way? Aircraft carriers are flat-top floating airports and submarines lurk beneath the surface and launch torpedoes, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles. It’s been that way for decades. But did you know it is plausible that a submarine could have a flat-top and send combat drones into the air? The “sub-carrier” would launch its aircraft and then head for the depths. Quite a departure for undersea warfare, to be sure. But this idea could have legs someday as the Navy examines different ideas for unmanned aviation on the high seas.

Aircraft Carrier Sunset

At sea aboard USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) Mar. 6, 2002 — The sun rises behind USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), as it prepares to turn over operations to the John F. Kennedy Battle Group. The Kennedy and her embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) are relieving the Roosevelt to conduct missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Navy photo by PhotographerÕs Mate 1st Class Jim Hampshire. (RELEASED)

It’s Closer to Reality Than You Think

Unknown to many, the U.S. Navy has already tested flying a small recon drone called the Sea Robin, which took off from a submarine’s torpedo tube in 2013. In 2016, the Navy announced it was working to send “stealthy spy drones” called Blackwings into the air from tubes on the sub. So, submarine-launched drones are more than just a fanciful concept.

What About the Flat-top Submarine Carrier?

Like traditional carriers, the sub-carrier would have an elevator and flight deck for unmanned combat vehicles. The sub-carrier would also have ballast tanks to raise or lower the vessel. Here it gets imaginative as some envision the flight deck to be populated by robots that perform the tasks associated with getting the drone into the air. This would reduce the number of sailors on the submarine and could make the sub-carrier smaller than other boats in the U.S. fleet.

Allows the Submarine to Penetrate Contested Seas

19FortyFive’s Robert Farley was interviewed by Popular Mechanics’ Kyle Mizokami in 2019. Farley believes the sub-carrier concept has some merit and is worth exploring further. “A submarine platform for launching drones would stand a better chance of surviving in hostile, anti-access environments,” Farley said. “While an aircraft carrier can take advantage of its speed and mobility to avoid missile attacks, it can’t match the stealth of even a large submarine.”

More Sub-carrier Drone Launches

A sub-carrier doesn’t have to feature a flight deck. This year Israel tested a submarine-launched reconnaissance drone that can propel through the water while the boat is submerged. So there is still interest in sub-carriers after the Sea Robin and Blackwing UAVs were evaluated years ago.

Called the Ninox 103, the Israeli drone shows promise to prove out the sub-carrier idea. The submarine does not have to bring its mast above the water. The Ninox 103 is undetectable as it is launched from 150 feet underneath the sea to burst into the sky. It is based on UAV artificial intelligence that makes it autonomous and able to communicate with troops on land.

South China Sea

NORFOLK (Aug. 16, 2019) The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), left, and USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) moored at Naval station Norfolk. Making port at Naval station Norfolk is a routine activity for aircraft carriers.

Why Not Guide Torpedoes With Drones?

The other big idea with sub-carriers is using drones to help torpedoes find their target. These types of unmanned craft launch out of the sub’s tube that usually deploys sound decoys. These drones are small enough to burst out of the three-inch tube. They can fly with day or night video cameras to relay targeting data on enemy ships back to the sub-carrier. This model is called Advanced Weapons Enhanced by Submarine UAS against Mobile targets – AWESUM for short.

Make the SEALs Happy

With all the different models of drones launched from carriers, it appears that the sub-carrier concept will come to fruition soon. The flat-top sub-carrier is probably optimistic and not likely to see any progress beyond an artist’s rendering. But drones and submarines have their biggest advantages in torpedo targeting and communicating with troops. A spotter drone could clear the way and be the eyes and ears for Navy SEALs who are inserted by submarine into combat zones. The sub-launched drones have numerous advantages, and it will be interesting to see how the Navy will use them in the future.

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.



  1. Captain4520

    August 8, 2022 at 11:45 am

    That concept already exists. During WW2 japan built Submersible Aircraft Carrier. The Japanese I-400 subs and some Type B submarines could launch planes.

  2. DK

    August 8, 2022 at 8:30 pm

    The Nazis had blueprints for submersible aircraft carriers once the Allies overpowered them a lot of interesting engineering blueprints came to light.

  3. Temele

    August 9, 2022 at 3:49 am

    Yes. The only aerial bombing the US got in history was done by a Japanese plane launched by a sub carrier!

  4. Gareth Dowdell

    August 9, 2022 at 8:04 am

    The i-400 submarine launched bi planes off a catapult armed with torpedoes. Their primary target was to have been the lock gates on the Panama Canal. They were in service for the last two years of the war.

  5. Jim B

    August 9, 2022 at 3:04 pm

    Why not use VTOL aircraft that ride up to the surface in tube elevators when the sub surfaces. Then the tubes are sealed and the sub submerges until the planes return.

  6. James

    August 10, 2022 at 12:56 am

    China is say shead on this concept
    Though industrious as china is their version is a drone factory..filled with the raw materials to pop up off the coast launch large weaponized done swarms

    Submerge build more pop up off florida or texas launch more nightmare scary.. You still happy to buy cheap chinese junk?

  7. Sideways the Seven

    August 10, 2022 at 8:58 am

    The Japanese did this loooong ago and they revisited the concept in the anime Arpeggio of Blue Steel. They’re not launching planes, but there are submersible battleships and destroyers

  8. Eric

    August 10, 2022 at 12:38 pm

    Brent Eastwood,
    Did you really not know this was already done by the Japanese in the years before the date your magazine is named after…

  9. Stainton

    August 11, 2022 at 10:15 pm

    Nothing new,Japan had Submarines carrying spotter planes in the Japan /USA WAR. Think they were name KATO”S

  10. just sayin' Ma...

    August 15, 2022 at 10:39 pm

    DARPA is also looking into trying to construct a Flying Aircraft Carrier similar to that in the Marvel Comics S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier! The question shouldn’t be can one be constructed, but to how much is one likely to cost! Which I suspect no one is going to be willing to pay…

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