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Sub-Carrier: How to Merge a Submarine and an Aircraft Carrier

Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: U.S. Navy
American Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman is pictured during flying operations in the company of HMS Somerset in the Mediterranean. HMS Somerset was perforing anti-submarine duties for the immense vessel at the the time.

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.

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.

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.

Aircraft Carrier

Image of U.S. Navy Nimitz-class Aircraft Carrier.

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier

INDIAN OCEAN, (Jan 18, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Indian Ocean. Abraham Lincoln is in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility as part of a deployment to the western Pacific and Indian Oceans to support coalition efforts. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Eric S. Powell/ Released)

Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz

(Mar. 12, 2022) Sailors aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68) assemble on the flight deck and form a human ‘100’ to commemorate the centennial of the aircraft carrier. On March 20, 1922 the former USS Jupiter (Collier #3) recommissioned as the USS Langley (CV 1), the U. S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier. One hundred years later, Nimitz and Ford-class aircraft carriers are the cornerstone of the Navy’s ability to maintain sea control and project power ashore. Nimitz is the first in its class and the oldest commissioned aircraft carrier afloat., carrying with it a legacy of innovation, evolution and dominance. Nimitz is underway in the 3rd Fleet Area of Operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt)

 Now serving as 1945’s 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. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

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.