SOFREP has reported about China’s third (and ongoing production for fourth) aircraft carrier as well as India’s very first aircraft carrier. But, how should the US take it to the next level? By producing the world’s first flying aircraft carrier.

Though aircraft carriers allow our troops to be agile in different locations, these are also very vulnerable targets. Once an enemy’s missile hits the carrier, aside from a loss in infrastructure, it would also result in a massive loss in strategic positioning on the battlefield. This is why a flying aircraft carrier could be the solution to this potential threat.

Naval aviation history is filled with various methods to bring our most powerful jet fighters to the sea. Our navies tried airships, submarines, and even sea takeoff, but these were not as efficient as our existing aircraft carriers.

During World War I and World War II, there has been a lot of experimentation in navies around the world. How do we use naval aviation, and where do we position them? In 1925, the US Navy’s USS Langley (CV-1) was the only aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, the Germans used the Los Angeles (zeppelin) to test their fixed-wing takeoff-and-landing concepts. What navies before were trying to do was to find out how feasible flying aircraft carriers would be. Are they cheaper to produce? Are they more efficient? How about operational training and manpower?

And now that our Navy has multiple aircraft carriers positioned all over the world, naval planners are still preparing for contingency plans to avoid future threats, specifically ones like China’s DF-26.

Dong Feng 26
The newly developed DF-26 medium-range ballistic missile as seen after the military parade held in Beijing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. (Source: IceUnshattered/Wikimedia)

The DF-26, originally named Dong Feng-26 (东风-26) is an intermediate-range ballistic missile deployed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It has a range of 3,100 miles and can conduct precision nuclear or conventional strikes against the ground or naval targets. This powerful missile can possibly attack nuclear warheads in its first strike. Additionally, it was claimed that it is capable of reaching American military installations in Guam. Because of this notion, the DF-26 is also dubbed as the “Guam Express” or the “Guam Killer.”

What’s more, the DF-26 was put under live-fire testing on Aug. 26, 2020. The missile was launched into an area in the South China Sea between Hainan and the Paracel Islands after Washington blacklisted 24 Chinese companies who were reportedly part of illegal military activities in the South China Sea. US officials reported four DF-26 missiles were fired in total.

So, it is no wonder naval planners are still keen on finding alternatives when it comes to battling this firepower.

DARPA (Defense Department’s Advance Research Projects Agency) has been reportedly running a program called “Gremlins,” a name applicable to individual drones. A Gremlin drone is a low-cost UAV with digital flight controls and navigation systems. It is particularly designed to be recovered in midair by a modified transport airplane during a mission. Its potential role includes intercepting communications, jamming signals, and hunting for targets to be destroyed. They could also be equipped with explosives for kamikaze attacks.

Ideally, the Gremlins should only cost less than $800,000 to produce, and the Defense Department is looking to order about 1,000 of these.

C-130 Hercules
A low angle right front view of a C-130 Hercules aircraft on the ground. (Source: The U.S. National Archives/getarchive)

To carry the Gremlins, the US military plans to create an aerial aircraft carrier to fit the Gremlins project. They could go with a modified C-130 cargo plane, which can carry up to four drones in bomb racks under its wings. A small squadron would be assigned to bolster the deployment of these drones. But, the tricky part is recovering them midair after a mission.

So, Dynetics, the contractor for the Gremlins project, is planning to design a particular recovery system that would be outfitted above the C-130’s cargo ramp.

“When a Gremlin flies back to the mothership, the cargo ramp opens and the recovery system lowers a boom out of it. This boom releases a pod on a ten-metre-long tether, and that pod clamps onto a short engagement arm which pops out of the top of the Gremlin itself. A successful capture shuts off the Gremlin’s engine. A winch then hoists the drone on board. This arrangement should be able to pull eight Gremlins an hour out of the air.”

However, it is important to note that the Gremlins have not managed to do a successful capture yet. But, Dynetics is tweaking its software for another test next summer. The testing will include Gremlins stacked with different payloads while they simulate different circumstances on the battlefield. For this, DARPA is also developing a software called “Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment” that will allow other aircraft (and the modified aerial aircraft carrier) to communicate with the Gremlins while flying.

“The goal, rather, is to give individual drones enough autonomy for a single human operator to be able to oversee a cluster of them.”

The Navy is still far from launching a fully functional aerial aircraft carrier, but it is interesting to see how this would change modern naval and aerial warfare.