Last week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) filed an open call for feasible designs for an airborne aircraft carrier capable of deploying and recovering small drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, while in flight. (DARPA would not confirm their purpose or whether they would be armed to Motherboard.) According to the request, DARPA wants to use existing aircraft for the design, and with minimal modifications.
It's exactly the kind of bonkers, though tantalizingly plausible, idea that the experimental military research lab has become known for. But this plan has a distinct retrofuture twist: a declassified Air Force document from 1973 titled "Investigation of a Micro-Fighter/Airborne Aircraft Carrier Concept" reveals that the concept has been around for some time, and the Air Force, in partnership with Boeing, found it feasible with 1970s technology.
Then again, the report also predicted that we'd have nuclear-powered fighter jets by the year 2000.
According to the report, which can be found in the archives of the Defense Tactical information Center, the Air Force wanted to use existing aircraft to carry their as-yet constructed micro-fighters—the term the report uses for their experimental compact fighter jets—much like DARPA does now. A chief difference being, of course, that DARPA wants to use small unmanned drones.
The report's carrier of choice was the Boeing 747 because it could be modified with relative ease, and without significantly diminishing the space available to pack micro-fighters into the fuselage. A 747, appropriately modified, could carry 10 micro-fighters with enough room for re-arming supplies, the report found.
The micro-fighters themselves had to be designed with size, speed, and combat ability in mind. The jets had to be able to fit into a 747 en masse, while remaining nimble and deadly enough to take on a Soviet MIG-21 fighter, the kind of jet that the report names as the micro-fighters' most likely adversary.
The report outlines several different designs for micro-fighters, and they look completely space-age and generally cool as hell. According to the report, the micro-fighters they designed could be refueled, lifted into the 747's fuselage with a telescoping refueling boom, re-armed, and stowed until their next deployment in a mere 10 minutes.
The concerns that the report addresses line up with DARPA's in many ways: carrier standoff distance, deployment and recovery procedures, and operational specifics are all broached upon. The difference now is that we don't need to come up with crazy designs for retro-futuristic micro-fighters. We already have them, and they're called drones.
Given that the first use of airborne aircraft carriers by the US Air Force was in the mid-1930s with dirigibles serving as motherships, and that the crazy designs laid out in the 1973 report were apparently abandoned—not to mention that DARPA files open calls for feasibility reports for their insane ideas all the time—it remains to be seen whether we'll see small drones flying out from inside Air Force jets any time soon.
Still, DARPA has set a 4-year window as their target for when they want to see this technology ready for demonstration in the field. Until then, we can all enjoy—to paraphrase William Gibson—the wonderfully aged patina of an imagined future, according to the Air Force.