Ever since Marvel Comics first popularized the idea, the world has been waiting for someone to invent an honest-to-goodness flying aircraft carrier. Now, DARPA says it's going to give it a try.
Not all at once, though. At least, not initially. Late last month, DARPA -- the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- announced the launch of its "Gremlins" program. While not quite a true Marvel-icious flying "helicarrier," Gremlins sounds pretty ambitious in its own right.
Essentially, the plan is to design a fleet of small, unmanned aerial vehicles that can both take off from and land back aboard a larger aircraft. These aerial drones would be deployed on "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other modular, non-kinetic" missions, says DARPA. (Translation: No shooting.) Offensive missions would initially be limited to electronic warfare -- jamming radar systems, spoofing the radar signatures of larger warplanes, and disrupting enemy communications.
Now, although it's not been widely publicized, the U.S. military actually already possesses drones that perform these kids of missions. Miniature Air-Launched Decoys ("MALDs") built by Raytheon(NYSE:RTN) and their radar-jamming MALD-J cousins are two prime examples of disposable e-warfare drones developed for the Pentagon:
RAYTHEON'S LESS-THAN-300-POUND MALD DRONE TRICKS FOES WITH A RADAR SIGNATURE THAT MAKES IT LOOK LIKE A FULL-SIZE FIGHTER JET. IMAGE SOURCE: RAYTHEON.
Northrop Grumman's (NYSE:NOC) new Bat drone is believed to be capable of carrying out similar missions:
The movies were right: Gremlins are real.
Or at least they will be if DARPA -- the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- has anything to say about it. As we learned this week from our friends at the Navy Times, DARPA is moving ahead on its effort to create a fleet of flying aircraft carriers, which it calls the "Gremlins" program, with demonstration flights scheduled to begin sometime next year.
What are Gremlins?
We've been watching this particular hush-hush DARPA project for more than two years now. In a nutshell, it calls for the creation of a new class of small, reusable drones that can be launched midair from a C-130 air transport, disperse to surveil (or, depending on the payload, attack) targets as much as 300 miles away, then return to their flying airbase to dock for refueling and rearming.
Basically, Gremlins will be flying, warlike Roombas, but supersized -- big enough to carry 60 pounds of payload each.
What are Gremlins for?
According to our friends at Scout Warrior, who've also been following this project closely, one key objective of the Gremlins is to extend the range at which U.S. air forces can operate in a contested environment characterized by an adversary employing A2/AD (anti-access/aerial-denial) tactics. These include the use of cruise missiles to keep aircraft carriers at bay, forcing airplanes to fly long distances to reach their targets, and surface-to-air missiles, which make it hazardous for nonstealthy aircraft to get too close to hostile territory by air.
Obviously, nonstealthy C-130 air transports aren't the best way to penetrate such defenses. After Phase 3 of the Gremlins project is complete, the Air Force will probably want to order up a stealthy "mothership" to take over the role of "flying aircraft carrier." Such a mothership -- perhaps a modified version of Northrop Grumman's (NYSE:NOC) new B-21 bomber, or the yet-to-be revealed carrier-launched MQ-25 Stingray, could fulfill this role.
Launched from an aircraft carrier, a more advanced mothership would fly stealthily into hostile airspace, undetected by radar. Suddenly, enemy radar screens would light up as dozens of unstealthy Gremlin drones appear seemingly from out of nowhere to conduct strikes, then return to their mothership and simply vanish into radar-invisibility once again.
At which point the mothership would return to base, never having been detected.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – more commonly known as DARPA – is moving ahead with a project to create According to the Navy Times,