Pentagon Wants to Build Aircraft Carriers in the Sky

Aircraft-Carrier-Sky-600x400The Pentagon’s main research arm wants to find out what a flying “aircraft carrier” carrying a fleet of small aerial drones might look like and how much it would cost the military.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced Sunday it would open a competition for proposals to build a large aircraft — similar to a C-130 — that could carry and distribute aerial drones across a large area. DARPA officials said they wanted to see proposals for a system that could both launch the drones, but also recover them mid-flight.

Flying conventional airstrikes with large manned aircraft is both expensive and risky for the human pilot, DARPA officials explained. Therefore, the Pentagon wants to consider a “blended approach” that would lengthen the range of small drones by carrying them to combat aboard a manned aircraft.

“We want to find ways to make smaller aircraft more effective, and one promising idea is enabling existing large aircraft, with minimal modification, to become ‘aircraft carriers in the sky’,” said Dan Patt, DARPA program manager.

DARPA wants the proposals to allow for a flight demonstration of the aircraft and the drones within four years. Officials expect to use the proposals to build an official DARPA program for the system.

Leaders emphasized in the announcement that DARPA wants the drones to be small and cheap. Military commanders want cost effective options to execute airstrikes and this program should provide it.


About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to He can be reached at
  • blight_weroasdfl

    Historically, we have launched Ryan Firebees (and controlled them) from DC-130’s.

    And when it comes to launch and recovery of parasite aircraft we have done that too. A B-36 using a FICON carried an F-84; and in the ’30s we had blimp skycarriers that carried aircraft.

    • 10th

      Ironically, I was thinking of the XF-85, which was the precursor to the FICON/F-84 project.

    • tiger

      Good memory. While beset with issues, both Ficon & the Airships worked. And that was before fly by wire or computers.

      Here is Ficon in action.

    • JCitizen

      If an airship is properly designed, it can fly at 300 mph. I’d think this would be better for high loiter capability. Otherwise it hardly makes sense, as it needs to stay in theater for a long time, and not waste fuel. I can’t see even a large C130 prototype doing this and also carry the fuel on board to be like a true aircraft carrier mission. Staying on station would be part of the requirement, I’d think.

    • Punisher_1

      I designed something like this inxa fictional sense. It utilized multiple helium cells on a ridgid carbon nano fiber frame along with honey comb aluminium structure. A large flight deck in the center for Carrier like operations. Sure its not fast but you could lift enough crew and drones to have continued operations for a decent period of time.

      • Doc

        Reading the articles headline and not seeing the demo photo the very first thing that came to my mind was a Dirigible. Fuel consumption would be cut drastically. You’d sacrifice speed and make for a great target however. Punisher your concept of a dirigible the way you describe it is very innovative. That’s out of the box thinking. I think we probably think along similar terms. In the early 80’s I took a College Degree Program for Commercial Pilot. One of the courses was Aviation History. I was kind of pissed thinking what good is a class like this for. Well it really caught on fire from day one and I learnt so much that was applicable it wasn’t funny. Of course I Aced the class. I don’t recall if a Dirigible was used like an Aircraft carrier but seem to recall Douglas as being the first American to design a wooden runway that ran from the beach onto floats in the ocean and the Navy took to it by designing Aircraft Carriers. You always have to try and stay one step ahead of everybody else. It doesn’t hurt to think Chess with multiple moves.

  • Lance

    This is currently impossible, to do this safely. Once mistake by a lasy drone pilot and that brings the whole carrier down. Technologically we can do it but its not bright or safe to do.

    Watch some didot in the Army want to make helos land in a C-130 in mid air. LOL

  • @ran451

    Of course this is only my humble opinion, but I genuinely feel like humanity is making a mistake. I feel as though we are orchestrating our own extinction level event. Of course I don’t want this to happen, and I’m not opposed to the idea of a carefully balanced use of drone/robotic tech. Idk, this is all just very unsettling…

    • pat g

      Thats the same thing the Pope said about the crossbow in 1300….it would be the end of the world as we know it

      • yahseph hawkins

        AND IT WAS…………….as they knew it……..

    • tiger

      Scared of Cylons or a T-1000 with a heavy accent?

    • @ran451

      I thought I would have had at least someone agree with me… However you are all aware that by the time a platform like this is actually made [see: defense contractors milking the american taxpayer for everything they got] the parallel projects in AI and next generation networking may become a reality. I think the crossbow analogy is a little over simplified.

      My counter point would be this: No matter the weapon created the wielder of said weapon would be another human. So in principle the combatants would be equal (remember I said in principle). An AI will be superior in every conceivable way; it would be literally better than us. There would be no scenario in which humanity could defeat an AI that has real world access to military hardware (despite what hollywood would have you believe). I encourage the a discussion on this.

      Good day.

  • Uncle Bill

    I picture a spearfishing arrangement. A pole out the back of the cargo bay with a probe on it and a UAV with a socket, much like for refueling. The UAV flys up to the probe, clicks in, shutdowns it’s engines and the pole pulls back into the cargo bay with drone attached. The rest is engineering.

    • Mike

      I posted a nearly identical idea at the same time, great minds must think alike

      • fascist churchill

        No, in America, little minds think alike, and there are hundreds of millions of little minds.

  • Mike

    I would use something similar to a highly stabilized fuel boom with an electromagnet attached at the end. Using sensors and some form of ladar on the drone, it could theoretically fly right underneath it within inches, when the drone is close enough the electromagnet can be powered on connecting itself with the drone. the boom can then be retracted and the drone can be brought in for refueling/rearming. Not sure if the sudden bang could weaken or crush the airframe of the drone but it is feasible and cheap using mostly off the shelf technology.

    • Ray

      Electromagnet would probably be fatal for any electronics aboard the Drone unless there would be a way to shield the components.

      • NathanS

        Just keep things simple and low-tech, and use a big net.
        Sure, it might need to be replaced every once in a while, but it wouldn’t be expensive.

  • Reverend Clint

    With advancement in robotic arm tech I wonder if they could adapt the arm they use on the i’m to grab a drone that’s syncd with the mother plane is same speed not altitude.

  • Shan

    The US NAVY had 2 large Zeppleins in the 30s which could launch and recover 5 aircraft each. just up date this idea with modern technology and you would have a flying intel station capable of mounting many unmanned operations…

  • ronald childers

    well Shan you are right… or bring back the dirigibles… I can see the Goodyear Blimp over the Pacific now! a flat landing surface on the top with netting sides to prevent the drones from being blown overboard!

  • Retired

    Just need a refueling anchor

  • Don Thomason

    Better yet…just provide the enemy with some salt peter so they cannot reproduce themselves. That way we have eliminated any opposition to us.

  • Jeff

    I see two ways something like this could work out. One is simply a parasite arrangement where drones are carried externally like jetisonable external fuel tanks but can recouple at those hard points. Carrier though implies something more involved such rearming and refueling so I imagine something that’s a cross between a C130 or other cargo/refueler and a B52. Our drones can already safely couple with refueling air tankers, if the same maneuver ended with a firm supported coupling that grabs the drone, it could be brought into the carrier for whatever rearming or repairs are necessary. That necessitates either a large bay or some way to fold up drones. Relaunch would have to occur with drones being brought forward and dropped out the belly or lowere back out the rear since I think it’d be too problematic to open up a nose to fly out the front. A combination of those two arrangements would theoretically increase how quickly drones could be launched.

    Even just drones that could be carried by a B52 in significant enough numbers and landing elsewhere could accomplish what Darpas trying to do.

    The economics will hang on how much they’re willing to risk on a single platform vs economy of scale where the bigger it is the more it can carry and greater autonomy it can have. This should increase response times and operational ranges away from airfields. I’m also pretty sure it’d help with bandwidth issues if these act as network hubs to the drones. If the Air force wants to use drones for all its ground support and reconnaissance this makes sense to make the most of them.

  • 462fourever

    Why reuseable drones? Why not use off the shelf tech we have now and create one time use units on the cheap! Instead of something we will have to store ,maintain or upgrade ?

    • rtsy

      We have off the shelf reusable drones as it is.

      And disposable is not cheap in the long run.

      The blimp model seems to make sense for the Homeland but you’d want something a bit more speedy and maneuverable for any wartime deployment.

    • NathanS

      If you want cheap non-reusable drones, you may as well just use long-range missiles.

      I think what re-usable drones give you is things like reconnaissance and even electronic warfare. Drones could be much cheaper than the equivalent manned version, and yet the electronics required for those sorts of things are too expensive to throw away every time.

      • blight_weroasdfl

        Drones are invariably made with COTS stuff, which is why their failure rate is higher than piloted aircraft.

        And using QF-16’s and QF-4’s in combat may not be a bad idea. Send them flying straight into S-300/S-400’s, then light up the air defenses with ARM’s.

    • George

      Yeah, single use drones. I like the idea. Maybe we could come up with a catchy name for them - like “guided missile wooden round” concept?

      Drones are being considered to solve an economic problem - not tactical or operational. Drones allow you to reuse the most expensive parts of the system - data links, acquisition sensors, long range propulsion and navigation, survival aids etc and only expend fuel and warhead (with a cheaper terminal homing guidance set) on each use.

      You could build a single use drone that flies off from CONUS to a target - this is not a technological challenge, merely an economic one. Instead to shave costs you make the most expensive parts reusable - use a bus to carry it to theater, a cheaper drone to penetrate defenses and even cheaper pgm for the final attack. This way you save the most expensive bits for reuse at a later date. This works out cheaper given the current economic and technological environment. If the economic situation changed or technological breakthrough were made you would have to recalculate the most cost effective solution again.

    • Bill Hartmann

      I bet an independent Life Cycle Cost analysis prove you’re right.

    • Bohdan Szejner

      Put in low orbit the shuttles that are now motballed. They can carry many drones at a time.

  • hialpha

    First step, destroy Captain America! — Check

    Second step, employ Robert Redford as a mole (his Sundance festival is the PERFECT cover) — Check

    Third step, build giant automated airships with killer drones. — Check

    Fourth Step, All hail HYDRA. — Check

    Seriously, are we getting our new ideas from Hollywood now? I mean I liked the movie and all but…

    Somebody call Samuel Jackson!

  • F22 Flighttester

    And why not? We have the capabilities and the knowledge and this would extend the effectiveness of the smaller scale drones. If managed correctly, it should be cost effective too. This can the the next step in the use of drones in the war theater.

  • tiger

    DARPA goes back to the Future big time……. The USS Akron & Macon mets “Sky Capt of Tomorrow?” Not totally nuts, but not high on the dream toy list. I still want my transporter & Holodeck.

  • tudor

    why not …. or this may be the 1st step towards a “shield” helicarrier :))

  • UK grant

    Lunatics and MIC puppets in the USAF are at it again. Never mind that the US government is already bankrupt, and vast number of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Bloodsuckers.

  • Zealot


  • SuojaKerroin

    Hopefully someone there has played the old computer game called crimson skies. Basically all you need is to bring back the zeppelins USS Akron has done this in the 30’s with manned aircraft’s so why not do it with drones?

    Not to mention that advances in current materials can make Helium zeppelin viable so it’s not so prone to explosions as old Hydrogen filled ones. Not to mention that you could use lightweight solar panels to power it up so half of time you could run the whole ship without using any fuel, theoretically allowing such carrier to operate months at time over warzones where US has air superiority.

  • stpaulchuck

    somebody was up too late watching old stuff from the 1930’s

  • John


  • Doubtom

    It’s a damn shame that we can’t utilize our imagination in solving social problems as easily as we come up with yet new ways to perform military roles and figure out new ways of killing people.

    • blight_weroasdfl

      iPads for every American…I’m not sure what the point would be.

    • tiger

      What do you call $6 billion for fighting Ebola? Give us credit something….

  • RRBunn

    Not sure what the mission is. Why not put the smarts in the missiles and just develop a better launch platform. We don’t need slow drones that controlled by slow pilots half the world away, we need to be able to put the smarts in the stand off weapons. Using a C-130 in a near peer environment would just make it a short lived target. If you want to use the mother ship to extend the range then look at the air launched Tomahawk or AF equivalent. I would bet that you could change the cruise missile to an ISR platform as well.

  • Joe Tri

    Obviously a knowledge of military history is not a mandatory for Pentagon Think Tanker’s.
    These are only a few of the problems associated with recovery and retrieval of drones that killed all earlier attempts. The wake turbulence produced by four turbo props has,and will make it impossible to recover a drone. The deployed drone has a wingspan considerably wider they the internal bay of a C130.
    When it comes time to recover a drone a lot of things have to all go right. Miss one and you re-wright the program. Mother ship and drone must be at same airspeed. Only my guess, but I am willing to bet the drone max speed is slower then Vs1 of a C130. Even if it’s not, think of the wake behind a C130 flying at Vs1. After hook-up, the drone must be kept stable in all attitudes, the wings folded (making the wings foldable would add enough weight to make the use of drones impracticable), then brought back into the C130.
    One other idea was to use a reinforced refueling boom. If the boom was deployed out the rear ramp and if it could be made strong enough. Think of how much fun the pilot would be having when 2,000 lbs was suddenly attached about 150 ft beyond the aft CG.
    A lighter then air platform is nothing more that a very big, slow moving target!
    A mother ship has been tried before, and it never worked. If the problems could have been overcome, they would have been seen in active service. They didn’t and weren’t. This isn’t a video game and John Wayne didn’t pull grenade pins with his teeth.
    I hope the taxpayers aren’t billed for a few billion before this is sent back to the bone yard.

    • blight_weroasdfl

      Just as naval carriers must be much larger than the aircraft they carry, there’s a good chance that the airplane must be much larger than its drone as well. The obvious tradeoff to putting a drone into a small fuselage will be to reduce wingspan, which might affect loiter time.

      Beginning to wonder if a lighter-than-air airship is the way to do it…

    • JCitizen

      The mothership would not necessarily be a target of an unsophisticated enemy and/or the thing would fly in theaters where air superiority has made that less of a problem. I have seen new air ship designs that can take a lot of hits and still keep floating. The key is regenerated gas envelopes. The new envelope would unfold internally and take on hot air - you don’t really need lighter than air gas - in fact many designs use solar heat from the sun to adjust their altitude - of course that is not the only trick up their sleeve either.

      Also - with all those drones at you beck and call, you can simulate the fleet protection umbrella that Naval aircraft carriers enjoy.

    • Anonymous Coward

      TB2086 ep Thunderbolt had a flying wing aircraft carrier. Not plausible or sensible but the wide wing shape and the docking port design in the cartoon looked like the docking planes wouldn’t fly in the wake when docking.

      This drone carrier idea seems bit more plausible if it was done in that manner than the cartoons idea of docking full size jets and such. (Another cool thing in the ep was how they built a temporary landing surface for the carrier that wasn’t designed to land - presumably the carrier was assembled/launched from orbit)

  • Alan Hoffman

    Looks like an introduction to a Dale Brown book! Also, there are rerefernces in other articles for large aircragt becoming “missile trucks” as back up for our small number of F22s, F35s against certain opponents (China). Similar ideas that have merit in certain combat scenarios. BTW - Israel has experimented with “swarm logic” of UAVs over Lebanon ro locate and destroy Hezballah missile batteries…so there may be more here than presumed.

  • Big-Dean

    the chair force has a serious case of carrier envy (they wish they has a stick that big)

  • bart hooliman

    What is wrong with B-52 carrying cruise missiles. Yes the missiles are non reusable but the B-52 does not have to loiter in harms way to recover drones.

  • Nevil Shute

    Rather than convert one existing aircraft to both deploy and collect, surely employing two aircraft as a pair - one to deploy, one to collect - is a more achievable solution…?

    Regarding collection, and the already posted views on ‘human error’, isn’t it possible to update the drones with the same sort of guidance systems already employed in missile technology? Am I mistaken in thinking that spacecraft already employ auto-docking guidance technology (for instance on ISS missions)? Is it really that great a leap to auto-collect small drones into an aircraft?

    Any rebuttle of these suggestions welcome.

  • Hooksdown

    Google (Wikipedia) USS MACON and you’ll find photos of the hook and trapeze launch and recovery system. I recall seeing films (in the 40s) which showed this “carrier” in action. Impressive, back then. Scary as hell, but impressive. I guess there’s nothing new, these days. Well, landing that thing on the comet really got my attention.

  • skyhook

    Perhaps the old school skyhook would work.

  • jet

    Rocket asst.boosters and launch from wing pylons.rockets drop after back after mission complete.boom with mag. for recovery.stow in racks built along both sides of aircraft.

  • Franklin

    Why waste money! Just refuel them in the air. Its already been done. A second C130 loaded with tactical CMs targeted by the UAVs and you have 24/7 bombardment. Of couse being in a forward area without stealth or fighter cover means you have to have controled airspace. Plus logistically a major rear base to change out aircraft. Billy Michell would have loved it, but he supported the Macon and Akron and we know what happened to them. Don’t get me wrong with today’s Tech they could be reborn, but it won’t be cheap.…

  • jamesb

    Why don’t we just rent 11 from Nick Fury over at S.H.E.I.L.D?


    This does not sound small or cheap but it sure makes for big targets for the enemy to knock down……………

  • Doiron

    Lockheed - Martin P-791
    Problem solved, now give me money.

  • Craigpv2d

    A cruise missle/drone carrier based on a commercial aircraft with existing technolgies and parts already in the system is the best option. Modifying a KC-46, E-767, or a P-8 would make sense since they are already in production as militarized variants. A B-747-400 or B-747 LCF version is another option. Rotary launchers, as already produced for the AGM-86 and AGM-129, could be used internally with drogue chutes to assist launch. ALCM/CALCM/Tomahawk derived drones could be aerial refueled like fighters and flown back to the same base as the carriers land at. A simple ballistic recovery parachute could be used. They could be reloaded onto the mother aircraft on the ground easily instead of trying to reload in the air. ALCM/CALCM/Tomahawk drones could use the same electronics as a cruise missile version, with sensors instead of an explosive payload. Palletized versions could be used in aircraft with a rear loading ramp, (C-5, C-17, C-130, etc.). A mix of cruise missile and drones would be hard to defend against.

    Unlike a naval carrier or a airship version, pilots onboard the mother aircraft would limit the endurance of any aircraft to a day or two at most.…

    • tiger

      Uh, lets kill this idea off the top. The last thing we need is another KAL007 shootdown. So your plane choice is out. So are your missiles. They lack the loiter or hi altitude for the job.

  • Ken Vandevoort

    It sounds like Goblin all over again.

  • Robert

    The Air Force has a 400 ft. long Blimp setting in a warehouse in Texas that would make a good platform for this and cut the cost to the tax payer being that they have already spent so much to develop it already. It was called Blue Devil II.

  • jimbo

    DARPA-Dumb Armed Pentagon Agenda

    enuff said

  • Richard Miller

    If you shoot down the mother ship, there goes the ball game. Too many eggs in one basket

    • blight_weroasdfl

      The same is true with seaborne aircraft carriers. We’re not envisioning anything particularly expensive or strategically decisive with these drone carriers, especially if we’re looking at small drones that can be kicked out and retrieve from the rear of a C-130.

  • blight_weroasdfl

    The picture is somewhat misleading. Historically our drones have been high-loiter and long range because of the lack of bases. The plan here is to use drone carriers to extend their range, which means the parasite aircraft will lack the long wings characteristic of Predators (and characteristic of the picture), and will be somewhat easier to launch and retrieve.

    Considering that a Predator has a known range and loiter time, what is the expected net gain in range and loiter time by having a larger manned aircraft with a small flock of drones? Or an aerostat?

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  • Spc Patterson

    Why doesnt the navy use the idea of the flying aircraft carrier from the avengers movie?