America’s defense research agency could change warfare by perfecting a flying aircraft carrier.
The X-61 Gremlin project will disappoint Marvel and Doctor Who fans because the “mothership” looks nothing like a Queen Elizabeth class carrier. Instead, the flying aircraft carrier is a Lockheed C-130 Hercules cargo plane.
To explain, they dropped three X-61A Gremlin drones out of the back of a C-130 on 29 October 2021. Crew members then caught two of the drones the drones with a long-cable and pulled them back into the plane, Defense News reports. The test destroyed at third drone.
DARPA is creating a flying aircraft carrier for drones
The test is part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) efforts to create swarms of drones. DARPA planners hope planes could release swarms of drones that can destroy enemy targets.
Hence, DARPA is trying to create a flying aircraft carrier. One advantage of the flying aircraft carrier is that drones can return to it for refueling and to replenish armaments after attacks.
An even greater advantage to the flying aircraft carrier is that the Air Force will no longer need airfields on the ground to attack enemy targets or support troops in the field. Instead, planes based thousands of miles away in safe areas can bring in drone swarms for attacks.
The X-61A Gremlin is an unammaned air vehicle (UAV); in other words, a drone. Dynetics, Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, Airborne Systems, Applied Systems Engineering, Kutta Technologies, Moog, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Systima Technologies, and Williams International are building the X-61A for DARPA.
X-61A uses include air strikes, ground support, reconnaissance, and intelligence gathering. They call the X-61A a low-cost airframe design that they use on many aircraft.
America tries flying aircraft carriers again
Ironically, the Gremlins swarm project revives a weapons system the US Navy tested and abandoned 90 years ago – a flying aircraft carrier.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the US Navy built and tested the Akron class dirigibles. Each Akron class was a rigid airship that carried several fighter planes. Interestingly, the Akron class airships were the largest flying craft ever built. They were bigger than the infamous Hindenburg.
Notably, the Akron class ships Akron and Macon contained aircraft hangers. The hangers contained e Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk fighter planes that were launched and recovered with a hook system.
Interestingly, the Akron class hook system resembles the Gremlins’ project hook system. To explain, the Akron class launched Sparrowhawks by dropping them out of the ship on a hook. They caught the planes on a hook and pulled them back into the airship.
The Gremlin project uses a hook and cradle mechanism to lower and catch X-61As out of the back of a C-130. The C-130 serves as a flying hanger, just as the Akron class dirigibles did.
The Navy abandoned the Akron class and the flying aircraft carrier after both the Akron and the Macon crashed. Hence, America fought World War II without flying aircraft carriers.
Flying Aircraft Carriers will be a game changer
If they work, DARPA’s C-130 flying aircraft carriers could be a game changer in warfare.
To explain, a C-130 Hercules costs the Defense Department around $30 million, Motley Fool estimates. America’s latest aircraft carrier, the nuclear-powered USS Gerald R. Ford, cost $13.3 billion, Business Insider estimates. Similarly, the world’s largest non-nuclear aircraft carriers, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth class cost $4.3 billion.
I calculate you could buy 450 C-130s for the cost of a Ford class carrier and around 180 C-130s for the cost of a Queen Elizabeth class carrier. To elaborate, I calculate 45 C-130s could cost around $1.350 billion.
Yet each C-130 could carry enough drones to sink or damage the entire strike group a carrier leads. Destroying a carrier is easy, a drone can set a carrier on fire by firing a missile onto the deck while they are refueling and rearming the planes.
Similarly, an F-35A fighter jet costs $78 million. Hence, you could buy two C-130s for the cost of one fighter plane. Yet the C-130 could carry dozens of attack aircraft into battle.
Are the Navy’s Aircraft Carriers obsolete?
Hence, one drone can turn a Queen Elizabeth or Ford class carrier into a floating inferno, destroying dozens of expensive planes and killing hundreds of sailors.
Could they defend a carrier strike force if dozens of C-130s release hundreds of drones? Remember, it will only take one drone to destroy a carrier. Yet, an X-61A Gremlin is only 4.2 meters long, 0.57 meters wide, and 0.52 meters high. In addition, a Gremlin only weighs around 680 kilograms. The C-130’s payload is around 20,227. Hence, I guess a C-130 could carry 20 or 30 Gremlins and smaller drones.
Similarly, a swarm of Gremlins could destroy a squadron of F-35As on the ground before they take off. Remember, a fighter plane is a big target when it is sitting on the runway or taking off.
Thus, I predict flying aircraft carriers and drones will replace the Navy’s flat tops and fighter jets. The flying aircraft carriers are cheaper, easier to build, and faster to deploy. Since a C-130 has a range of 2,417 miles, flying aircraft carriers could attack targets anywhere on Earth with air-to-air refueling.
Sorry, Maverick Fighter Planes could be history
Moreover, C-130s have the advantage of being able to strike anywhere on land.
A C-130 could fly to Afghanistan and deploy Gremlins to destroy terrorist training camps or support US allies on the ground. Unlike a Navy carrier, the flying aircraft carrier will be right overhead and able to deploy drones in a few minutes.
Consequently, we could soon live in a world where the only place to see aircraft carrier operations is in Top Gun movies. The Maverick of the future will fly a C-130 while the drones do all the fun stuff. Tom Cruise probably will not make a movie about that.
Hence, members of the US Congress and the Indian and British parliaments need to ask the admirals some hard questions. In particular, why are we spending so much money on aircraft carriers and fighter planes when DARPA has a better and cheaper alternative?
Interestingly, DARPA is testing the flying aircraft carrier and the Gremlins at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. The US Army and the US Air Force have tested many game changing weapons at Dugway including napalm and dirty bombs. Dirty bombs spread radiation through radioactive dust or pellets.
Thus, DARPA, the agency that invented the internet, could have just air warfare beyond recognition and nobody noticed. I think flying aircraft carriers are the future of warfare, yet nobody important seems to care.