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Flying Aircraft Carriers and Submarine Aircraft Carriers: The U.S. Military’s Dream Weapons

USS Nimitz
PACIFIC OCEAN (July 18, 2012) The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) is underway during the Great Green Fleet demonstration portion of the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2012 exercise. Nimitz took on 200,000 gallons of biofuel in preparation for the Great Green Fleet demonstration during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2012. Twenty-two nations, more than 40 ships and submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel are participating in RIMPAC exercise from June 29 to Aug. 3, in and around the Hawaiian Islands. The world's largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC provides a unique training opportunity that helps participants foster and sustain the cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world's oceans. RIMPAC 2012 is the 23rd exercise in the series that began in 1971. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eva-Marie Ramsaran/Released)

Science Impossible: Flying Aircraft Carriers, Submarine Carriers, Jetpacks, and Mechs – The world of science fiction has long suggested the impossible could be possible. Filmmakers and video game designers have only furthered what the world can bring, in part because they’re not limited to the laws of physics or defense budgets. At least, however, when H.G. Welles and Jules Verne conceived some of their grand ideas for what the future might bring, they based them on the science of the day – hence the origins of the very term “science fiction.”

Flying Aircraft Carrier

Cutscene from The Avengers of the Shield Helicarrier taking off. Copyright reserved to Marvel and Paramount. Image Credit: YouTube Screenshot.

Fast forward to today, and if CGI (computer-generated images) can create it, chances are you’ll see it on the big screen. The same holds true for video games, where near-future wars include flying tanks, defense shields, and high-energy weapons. Some of these could eventually be seen on future battlefields, while other fan favorites will likely never be employed in the way we see in games in movies.

This includes flying aircraft carriers, swarms of warriors with jetpacks, and of course the “mechs.” It could also be added with a fair share of cynicism that the fact that some of these creations are tailor-made for toys – and this includes actual “play sets” for children, as well as the collectible variety that graces shelves of young-at-heart adults. That is why we’ll continue to debate the merits of these science impossible and improbable war machines.

In other words, what might seem compelling in games and movies simply won’t play in the real world. Here are a few reasons why.

Shooting Down the Flying Aircraft Carriers

This is one that never seems to die, as there are endless discussions on Reddit and other boards about why the military doesn’t try to make flying aircraft carriers. Yet, the U.S. Navy very much did try to make a flying carrier – and its USS Macon and USS Akron were essentially rigid airships (aka “zeppelins”) that could carry a small number of lightweight Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplanes within their airframes. It was far from a successful effort, however, as both airships were involved in accidents.

In April 1933, USS Akron crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Jersey killing 73 out of 76 personnel on board; while two years later USS Macon suffered a less serious crash, which killed two of its 83 crew and passengers. That grounded such efforts.

Today, thanks to the appearance of Helicarrier from the “Marvel Universe” seen in such films as The Avengers, or the retro art deco-inspired mobile airstrip from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the question of flying carriers often comes up again. But simply put, a slow-moving craft that could be taken out by a ground-based air-defense system will take off like a lead zeppelin. No military is going to invest in what is simply a giant target in the sky in the age of hypersonic missiles and unmanned drones that wouldn’t need to do all that much damage to see this come crashing back to Earth. So until a real-world Tony Stark – calling Elon Musk – wants to step up to fund such a program, flying aircraft carriers will remain grounded.

Deep Sixing the Submarine Carrier

During the Second World War, the Imperial Japanese Navy produced its I-400-class submarines, which were the largest subs ever built until the construction of nuclear ballistic missile submarines in the 1960s. A total of three of a planned 18 boats were built, and each was designed to carry three Aichi M6A Seiran aircraft. The thinking at the time was that the subs could surface, launch their planes and then quickly dive again before they were discovered.

Given the very limited success of the I-400 subs at the end of the war, another debate that won’t end is why the United States Navy doesn’t give submarine carriers another go.

The short answer is that it isn’t as all farfetched – at least not compared to the flying carrier – and any attempt to build a sub-carrier won’t be all that different from today’s fast attack or ballistic submarines. However, no one is going to produce a massive undersea vessel fitted with a hanger for a modern aircraft.

The issue remains how any modern jet fighter could be launched and recovered, and even an F-35B would present issues. Rather, we could, and likely even will see submarines modified to launch unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones. The Navy has already tested its Sea Robin, which was able to be launched from its torpedo tubes. Thus, there could be a future of submarine carriers, but not of the kind sci-fi likes to present.

So, anyone hoping for a massive super-submarine carrier that is fitted with a hanger filled with F-35 should stick to the video games. The cost of such a system, not to mention the fact that it takes time and effort to launch and recover the expensive aircraft, would quickly result in a loss of surprise and leave the boat a very big target for a counterattack. Instead, it will be sending in the drones and then diving deep.

Grounding the Jetpack Warriors

Of all of the sci-fi tech that is routinely debated, this one has merit but not in the way many would like to see. The United States Marine Corps and the UK’s Royal Navy have each been conducting tests on how a warfighter could use a jet pack to swarm and board an enemy warship during an assault. In recent years, the Daedalus Mark 1 exoskeleton has been used in tests to allow Royal Marines to make a short transit over water – showcasing how it could be used during hostage rescue operations.

Likewise, jetpacks do present similar opportunities for fire-fighters, medical, and rescue personnel – but no one should expect waves of flying troops in body armor to fight in the sky like Iron Man. Soldiers or Marines certainly couldn’t be fitted in armor as the small engines require the wearer to be lean and travel light. Likewise, the flight time for such jet packs is limited to around just ten minutes.

We may see jetpacks in the future but it won’t be like the comic books or The Mandalorian.

Knocking Down the Mechs

No piece of modern military sci-fi hardware has the love quite like the massive “Mechs” – the giant robotic vehicles that originated in Japanese anime and have since become a staple in board and video games. Seen in such films as Avatar and Pacific Rim, the concept of Mechs was introduced by game designer Jordan Weisman, who created the BattleTech board and roleplaying games of the 1980s.

Weisman actually attempted a grounded approach that saw the steel behemoths powered by electrically-charged artificial muscles that could move the joints via gyroscope stabilizers while the energy required came from an onboard power plant. There was some science reality in the approach, and it is possible that a mechanical exoskeleton could be developed, but it would likely it would resemble the “P-5000 Powered Work Loader” seen in Aliens more than a slow-lumbering walking tank.

Powering such a device is just one factor, and we simply lack batteries large enough at this point. The bigger issue is that it provides no actual benefit to future warfighters. Throughout modern military history, soldiers have sought to get low to the ground, and armies often dig fortifications – hence the trench warfare that was seen during the First World War. Mechs couldn’t easily go prone and are instead massive targets for ground-based artillery and rocket launchers. For a video game like BattleTech that was sort of the point, as the battles played out typically as one-on-one affairs.

Likewise, Mechs couldn’t easily cross rivers, and couldn’t venture into a heavy forest while it would get just as bogged down in urban areas, especially once the rubble piled up. Mechs would be like putting soldiers in supersized medieval armor with the only benefits being a massive amount of firepower. That would do little good if a few well-placed Javelin anti-tank missiles take out a gyroscope or if a concealed pit causes the Mech to tip over. Just remember what those Teddy Bear-like Ewoks did in Return of the Jedi to the Empire’s AT-STs, and that should be enough to knock down any hope that we’ll ever see bipedal fighting machines in the future.

A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 17, 2022 at 11:42 am

    Most of these dream weapons are ridiculous or impractical.

    But, a case can be made for a remotely controlled Android. Mankind already has the hardware and software designs, and just needs to create the Android (human shaped, machine powered) and the control interface (biofeedback like “Ready Player One”).

    An Android built 30ft tall, would be more forgiving of lag in the control interface, and leverage the use of stronger materials (steel), and power systems (internal combustion). Such an Drone with its 5 times longer arms and legs, and internal combustion/pneumatic/hydraulic power systems, would be able to throw supersonic, run 300mph, and throw Tanks around like the Hulk.

    An Android would also leverage mankind’s athletic control, such that Olympic level athletic performances would be left in the dust with computer supported/programmed movements. Anyone that’s seen videos of Robots struggling with stairs or just walking, can see how just putting a person in biofeedback control would solve everything. Real Intelligence is what we have, Artificial Intelligence is still a dream.

    Fundamentally, warfare is based on the flexibility of the soldier. The soldier’s ability to adapt to terrain, enemy weapons and defenses, and logistical support. So Drones/Androids are a strategic improvement of the Infantry, networking an entire team of military specialists into the combat of each Soldier.

    Finally, the development of such a man/drone is just off-the-shelf engineering. We already know People are possible, and no new technology is needed to recreate their functional physical form in a technological format.

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