Meet Project TERN: DARPA's Crazy Plan to Make Every Ship an Aircraft Carrier

Zachary Keck

Key point: This potentially-brilliant idea would increase America's striking power without having to pay for more expensive full-size carriers.

The U.S. Navy is seeking to transform every ship into mini aircraft carriers.

Last month the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the start of the second phase of its Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program. TERN, a joint program between DARPA and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR), aims to create a system that would enable small ships to operate both intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and combat drones.

“The goal of Tern is to give forward-deployed small ships the ability to serve as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial systems (UAS),” DARPA said in a press release announcing Phase 2 of the program. “These systems could provide long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other capabilities over greater distances and time periods than is possible with current assets.”

Not only would Tern enhance the U.S. Navy’s strike capabilities, but it could also greatly reduce costs by decreasing the U.S. military’s reliance on expensive land-based air strips. “A capacity to launch and retrieve aircraft on small ships would reduce the need for ground-based airstrips, which require significant dedicated infrastructure and resources.” Land-based airstrips are also more vulnerable to enemy missiles, and frequently create tension​ with local populations.

Tern also potentially help reduce the U.S. Navy’s reliance on aircraft carriers. This is crucial as many fear that large aircraft carriers are growing obsolete amidst the proliferation of long-range precision-strike missiles to U.S. adversaries like China and Iran. Beijing, in particular, poses a vexing challenge to the U.S. Navy as missiles like the DF-21D— frequently dubbed the “carrier killer”— appear to be aimed at sinking America’s aircraft carriers.

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