There's an old saying -- so old that not even the Internet seems quite certain who said it first -- that "generals are always prepared to fight the last war." Luckily, that's not a trap America's admirals are falling into. Instead, they're planning ahead...
...for a day when submarines are aircraft carriers -- and vice versa.
Last year, we told you about a new project being run out of DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- to invent a new weapons system marrying the best attributes of both submarines and aircraft carriers. Dubbed "Hydra" by the agency, this system would be silent (and deadly), and lurk 'neath the oceans like a submarine. Like an aircraft carrier, though, it would be muscular, power-projecting, and capable of attacking multiple targets on land, at sea, and in the air.
So basically, an underwater aircraft carrier.
Last month, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank did some more "forward thinking" along these lines and explained why the Pentagon wants this. On one hand, we already know that America's aircraft carriers are being targeted by adversaries sporting new armaments, such as China's DF-21D "carrier-killer" cruise missile. On the other hand, our submarines, underwater and theoretically insulated from missile threats, have troubles of their own. Writes CSBA:
U.S. defense strategy depends in large part on America's advantage in undersea warfare. Quiet submarines are one of the U.S. military's most viable means of gathering intelligence and projecting power in the face of mounting anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) threats ... [But] America's superiority in undersea warfare ... is far from assured. U.S. submarines are the world's quietest, but new detection techniques are emerging that ... may render traditional manned submarine operations far riskier in the future.
Specifically, CSBA worries that tech ranging from cutting-edge laser and LED detection systems to simple "lower frequency" sonar systems than are currently in use could be used to strip American submarines of their cloak of invisibility. And since undetectability is the primary reason to build submarines in the first place...
Now, a basic Virginia-class nuclear fast-attack submarine costs taxpayers upward of $1.8 billion a pop. Yet as The National Interest magazine puts it, we may be sinking billions of dollars into building vessels destined to become obsolete -- "the next battleship," as they put it.
So what does CSBA advise we do to defuse this threat? Basically just what DARPA already is doing: Developing tech to turn submarines into "underwater aircraft carriers." The greatest risk to America's submarines, after all, comes when they leave the vast ocean and swim into the littoral waters off a country's coast. There, they're big fish in a smaller pond -- and thus easier to detect.
CSBA argues that submarines can avoid this risk by remaining in deep water, and dispatching drones to perform riskier missions closer to shore -- aerial drones, surface drones, and even mini-submarine drones (dubbed UUVs or "unmanned underwater vehicles"). Thus, a submarine would act as an underwater aircraft carrier -- and an underwater surface ship carrier, and even an underwater submarine carrier. A submerged "mother ship" carrying a whole arsenal of robotic weapons to deploy wherever they might be needed.
What it means to investors
Citing "informal polling ... of multiple security experts," TNI noted that existing technology makes the idea of such underwater aircraft carriers "very feasible." Existing submarines already built by General Dynamics (NYSE:GD) and Huntington Ingalls (NYSE:HII) (America's two nuke boat-builders) could be modified to deploy aerial, floating, and underwater drones. Such modifications would cost money, of course (generating revenues for the contractors). But already, Ohio-class missile submarines are being outfitted with "piggyback" dry-dock shelters capable of deploying UUVs...
Simultaneously, the Navy is also developing a whole slew of UUVs, ranging in size from Boeing's five-ton Echo Ranger...
...to General Dynamics' torpedo-size and -shaped Knifefish -- weighing it at a svelte 1,700 pounds:
Meanwhile, last year's test launch of an "eXperimental Fuel Cell Unmanned Aerial System," or "XFC," by the USS Providence (SSN 719) showed that aerial drones, too, can be deployed underwater through a sub's torpedo tubes.
TNI hypothesizes that as the technologies get worked out and the concepts proven, this could lead to the development of an entirely new class of underwater aircraft carrier submarines.
Whichever route the Navy decides to go, be it building new submarine mother ships or just modifying existing platforms, promises to generate more business for the Navy's two biggest warship-builders over the years to come. And the need to develop "aircraft" for these ships to "carry" means there will be money a-plenty for the manufacturers of a new generation of underwater-deployable drones as well.
Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 293 out of more than 75,000 rated members.
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