The Navy Is Dreaming Of Underwater Drone Motherships

Robert Beckhusen

Key point: Drone technology and advances in material science could finally make these fantastical weapons feasible.

If submarines possessed the high vision and quick speed of aircraft, they could dramatically extend their reach. If aircraft took off and landed from underwater platforms, their staging and strikes would be stealthier and more secure.

But combining the two epoch-making weapons has proved difficult. Only one country really pulled it off—and too late to win a war. But the tremendous potential of the aircraft-sub combo may make an historic comeback thanks to drones and Special Operations Forces.

The underwater stealthiness of submarines comes with a great downside—blindness. Subs rely on a few sensors—and help from other military assets—to comprehend their environments.

By carrying and deploying a small airplane, a submarine could dramatically expand its ability to look around itself.

But even a small sub-launched plane needs a large and heavy pressure-proof hangar to ride in while the sub submerges. Early on, only the largest subs had room for such bulky hangars.

After World War I, the British replaced an M-class sub’s 12-inch gun with an aircraft hangar. The sub-carrier sank when the hangar flooded. The French “submarine cruiser” Surcouf, the largest undersea boat in the world in the 1930s, carried a small folding plane for spotting targets for its twin eight-inch guns.

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