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The Pentagon Wants to Build Massive Flying Motherships for Drones

DARPA — the mad scientists of the Pentagon — have put out a request for proposals about how to launch and recover drones from other aircraft in flight.
Photo via DARPA

The Pentagon's most famous mad scientists have started asking around to see if anyone has any bright ideas about how to launch and recover drones from other aircraft in flight.

The recent announcement by DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — has resulted in a little cascade of nerdgasms shivering across the internet, particularly by those who are just a little too into The Avengers because of the movie's ginormous flying-ship-helicopter-base-carrier thing.


While the DARPA plans will have only the barest superficial resemblance to that violently improbable Hollywood vehicle, it's not all war porn and bullshit either. The concept gives us a peek into the Air Force's psyche.

The plan is create a big plane, like a bomber or transport — they specifically mention the B-52, B-1, and C-130 — to carry, launch, and recover much tinier drones with payloads of up to 100 pounds. The drones are an important part of the story: If it weren't for them, DARPA wouldn't be asking, and this would generate less buzz.

Drones are weird and new and technological. For folks so ancient they grew up before cable television — often the big decision makers in government — talking about "drones" is like talking about something being "space-age" or "computerized" or on the "World Wide Web." It's usually a telltale indicator that someone who doesn't understand the technology is about to run around in circles, waving their arms to simulate understanding and/or interest.

War is (mostly) based on two things: effects and logistics. Effects are usually straightforward — blowing something or someone up to achieve some sort of goal. Logistics are, broadly speaking, the other half of the equation. It's not the effect, but producing the desired effect on the correct target at the right place and time. It's a little more like FedEx, UPS, or Amazon Prime. Between the two, the result is a military delivery service trying very hard to ship something to a recipient who desperately doesn't want to sign for it.


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DARPA's request for proposals is about changing the logistics of war, not about changing the effects. Adding drones to logistics in war is like Amazon Prime using drones to drop stuff on your doorstep. It's basically a way to buy stuff without all that troublesome personal interaction. Drone motherships probably won't be revolutionary or as wildly unlikely as the images coming from Hollywood.

The plan is create a big plane, like a bomber or transport — they specifically mention the B-52, B-1, and C-130 — to carry, launch, and recover much tinier drones with payloads of up to 100 pounds.

Invoking the word "drone" means that people also forget everything else that's happened in the last century of powered flight. The concept of "flying aircraft carriers" is an old one; drones are just giving it a new lease on life.

When people first started building aircraft, they tried out every permutation of every crazy-ass idea imaginable. Some of those experiments, like launching and landing on ships, eventually evolved into aircraft carriers. Others, like basing fighters on zeppelins, did much worse. For decades, the problem was that planes big enough to carry a heavy payload of bombs over great distances were big, slow, and lumbering, and therefore unable to maneuver. Aircraft that excelled in dogfighting just didn't have the range to stay with those bombers and protect them.


By the 1950s, the US had developed ways for bombers to carry "parasite fighters" — mini-fighter jets that were supposed to hitch a ride until the bomber was threatened. They could jump into action, defeat the bad guy fighters, snuggle back onboard the bomber, and then enjoy the ride or something.

This turned out to be stupefyingly dangerous. The little parasite fighters had to fly close enough to the bomber to grab an attachment hook, which subjected them to all kinds of turbulence and knocked them all directions — a dicey proposition since they were just a few feet or inches from a massive airborne craft.

Two developments made all this moot. The first was better missiles, which changed the tactics of air combat by revolutionizing how targets are shot down. The second was aerial refueling. While launching and recovering planes is a mess because of the turbulence, planes can fly close enough to each other to safely transfer fuel. Instead of big planes carrying little planes, big planes would just carry fuel for little planes, extending their range. Problem solved.

Drones are just airpower without all the adult diapers. Read more here.

These two developments ended up foreshadowing the gist of last weekend's DARPA request. Missiles, at their most reductionist, are just tiny little airplanes with poor little robot pilots.

DARPA's flying aircraft carrier won't be the first time drones are launched from an airplane. Cruise missiles are just drones with a death wish. It just took a couple decades to replace the flesh-and-blood kamikaze pilots of WWII with automatic ones capable of delivering the same explosive results to some unlucky target. Operationally, the air-launched cruise missile already is a bit of a template for figuring out how to launch drones from a mothership.


During Vietnam, the US Air Force learned that refueling aircraft could give damaged fighters a bit of a tow back to base using the refueling boom. It's like trying to tow a car by pulling it with a gas station pump hose, but it's better than nothing, and offers a clue on how airborne drones might be recovered.

The possibilities also include midair rearmament. Instead of just meeting up with a tanker to refuel, some have reasoned that it would somehow be possible and sensible for a larger cargo aircraft to do something similar to in-flight refueling but with live munitions.

So where's this all going? First and foremost, it's not going anywhere fast.

Drones are getting more capable. Yet, for all the leaps and bounds being made among small, tiny, and teensy drones, big drones are still closer to very elaborate, powered kites than cutting edge fighter jets. When compared to traditional aircraft, drones are hard pressed to do much beyond the simplest of flight tasks. This is changing — drones have demonstrated key in-flight refueling technologies — but the US is just getting to the first engineering stages of putting air-to-air missiles on unmanned aerial vehicles.

Inside 'Black Dart,' the US military's war on drones. Read more here.

In a way, drones are still very close to their philosophical heritage as cruise missiles. Although they reflect different developmental genealogies in many ways, neither is able to maneuver or respond to a changing situation as rapidly as a piloted aircraft.


Whatever DARPA may be looking at, there's absolutely no concrete plans for any aircraft remotely big enough to pack a set of piloted combat aircraft. The Air Force already flies great big radar planes like the AWACS, which are basically flying air traffic control towers. They fly tankers, to provide fuel to keep all the aircraft in the air. This talk of midair refueling and aircraft launching and landing on board other aircraft shows what the Air Force is thinking. It's not trying to build a humongous Avengers-style flying ship. But it is slowly but surely trying to build a flying airbase. Each of these airborne capabilities replicated onboard a larger aircraft basically simulates one building or task occurring at a terrestrial base.

The interest in creating flying analogues to airbases gives us clues about what is happening deep in the Air Force's psyche.

The interest in creating flying analogues to airbases gives us clues about what is happening deep in the Air Force's psyche, in its Id.

Until World War II, the US had two militaries: the Army and the Navy. The Marine Corps, although considered a separate service, is part of the Navy. With the aircraft carriers and nuclear missile subs, the US Navy has a ground combat force, an air force, a nuclear deterrent, and, of course, ships.

The US Air Force used to be part of the Army as the US Army Air Corps. Together, they have a ground combat force, an air force, naval capabilities, and a nuclear deterrent.

Both of these groupings share one thing in common. They are tied to native terrain, the land and the sea, that doesn't require special technological tools simply to maintain a physical presence. But the air is different. You can't just be there, hanging out. That means the Air Force can't really live in its own chosen native terrain.

As sprawling bureaucracies, the armed forces exhibit some interesting behaviors. After the Army Air Corps split off, the Army started growing a replacement air capability in the form of helicopters, and will probably include tilt-rotor vehicles in future. The Air Force's Id is institutionally inclined to acquire all the accoutrements of a more broadly functional armed service, like the Army or the Navy. So even if an Avengers-type flying monstrosity is well beyond the bounds of budgets or physics, its actually a kind of metaphorical image of what the Air Force really wants deep down: to live in the sky.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via DARPA