First Flight of America's Underwater Aircraft Carrier... Sort-of

So. It would appear that DARPA wants to build an American underwater aircraft carrier. You've heard about that one, right? How DARPA wants to find a defense contractor to help it build a submersible carrier that can launch drones, robotic submarines, and rockets from underwater? Well here's something you may not have heard about yet...

We've already got one (sort of). And it's already launched its first airplane.


USS Providence launches a drone from underwater. Source: U.S. Navy NAVSEA-AUTEC

So here are the details. Earlier this month, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory made a successful test launch of a new "all-electric, fuel cell-powered, unmanned aerial system (UAS)" -- a drone, in other words -- dubbed the eXperimental Fuel Cell Unmanned Aerial System, or "XFC."

The drone started out is mission encased in a Tomahawk missile launch canister, which the nuclear attack submarine USS Providence (SSN 719) fired out of a torpedo tube. The canister then opened, and the drone floated to the ocean's surface. On command, it activated its "Sea Robin" launch system, leaping vertically into the air -- and then happily tooled around the Caribbean on an hours-long test flight, streaming live video back to base all the while. Mission completed, XFC flew back to land safely at the Naval Sea Systems Command Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center in the Bahamas.

Underwater Aircraft Carrier: Version 1.0
So, is this "mission accomplished?" To an extent, yes. We've proven the concept for one means of deploying drones from "carriers" underwater. We already know that missiles can launch from underwater -- been doing that for decades. And as for the robotic submarines? Right now, they basically look like torpedoes anyway (like the iRobot Seaglider), so it stands to reason they can exit through the torpedo tubes, right behind the XFC drones.

All that remains, really, is to scale up DARPA's project. Build bigger submarine "carriers," with more egress points. Develop new ways to deploy more drones, and deploy them quicker. And of course, pick the right defense contractors to do the work.

What does it mean to investors?
In fact, we already have a pretty good idea of who fits that bill. In this month's drone launch demonstration, the XFC went airborne with help from the Sea Robin launch system built by Oceaneering International (NYSE: OII  ) -- which happens to also be a leading developer of underwater robots. For drone development, Raytheon's (NYSE: RTN  ) got a submarine-launched UAV in the works, which it calls the Submarine Over The Horizon Organic Capabilities, or "SOTHOC."

And as for the people who will build the actual aircraft carriers of tomorrow -- the boats that ride below the waves, rather than o'er them, there are really only two companies to choose from: nuke-sub specialists Huntington Ingalls (NYSE: HII  ) , and General Dynamics (NYSE: GD  ) , which incidentally, built the USS Providence itself.

When placing your bets on which companies will win the contracts to build America's future fleet of underwater aircraft carriers, it doesn't get much easier than this.


USS Providence. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (23)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 2:30 PM, hjwilson wrote:

    AW more sci-fi coming to life

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 4:00 PM, Vyper3000 wrote:

    Guess I shouldn't point out that the US has already had not one, but two "Underwater Aircraft Carriers" - both captured from the Japanese at the end of WWII. The I-400 and the I-401 each carried 3 floatplanes in a small hanger and it could launch them within 30 minutes of surfacing. It was designed for an attack on the Panama Canal. The US sailed them to Hawaii after the war and was evaluating them when the Soviets demanded access. The US Navy took them out and sunk them off the coast of Oahu. Research, people, research....

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 5:15 PM, fujidan wrote:

    What is DARPA ? I have read the article several times and the acronym isn't explained.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 6:29 PM, wtfgoogle wrote:
  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 7:04 PM, TMFDitty wrote:

    Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is basically the Pentagon's R&D division.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 8:04 PM, ETCSS wrote:

    Actually, the US Navy had a number (I think 3) of submarines in the late 50's and early 60's modified and designed to carry BOMARC jet propelled surface to surface missiles designed as deterrents to the USSR. After the development of the Polaris missile subs, they were modified to carry SEAL teams. On sub was the USS Halibut.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 9:35 PM, onejetjock wrote:

    Nice; there was DARPA flying sub RFP outstanding for years However, these one-off projects with roots in Hollywood shouldn't become projects too quickly.Once Ronald Reagan started Star Wars project proposing lazer beams and satellites only to have top scientist tell him straight. Billion dollar system was flawed because while the US built high value satellites all the enemy had to do was throw $10 bag of sand at them to render them useless. The US invests way too much in finding ways to monitor, contain and kill life and freedom. While our enemies spend far less to upset these devices. Let's channel some monies to old fashion projects like finding cure to cancer leaving hallucinogenic military ideas and projects to Hollywood.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 11:14 PM, fingerlakes54 wrote:

    A game changer for sure. Now we may not need 1000ft monster targets still fighting the Battle Of Midway.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 11:47 PM, rav55 wrote:

    The A400 was recently found off the coast of Hawaii was the Japanese aircraft carrying submarine.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 11:49 PM, rav55 wrote:

    @onejetjock

    Hmm.. it's cost a lot more than $10 dollars to use a bag of sand as a kinetic kill weapon.

  • Report this Comment On December 24, 2013, at 2:34 AM, aquanut87 wrote:

    It sounds excessively expensive and high-risk -- i.e., perhaps not the most expedited, prudent, and cost-effective business plan by which to develop a sub which can launch simple drones, UUAV and rockets.

    I'd contemplate proposing a joint-development with Japanese industry and Self-defense Maritime force? They are already designing rather significant scale non-nuclear powered and fairly affordable subs with long-endurance.

    Perhaps it's more feasible, and much cheaper to simply evolve and modify existing platforms which can be enhanced to employ new systems-based capabilities?

    Such a sub concept could be deployed regionally too for quicker response if necessary, either 'at-sea, or at an existing base' and possibly gain easier access to ports given non-nuclear power.

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