In a piece in mid-December, the web site NavalDrones detailed the U.S. Navy’s solicitation for an unmmaned aerial vehicle (UAV) that incorporates Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) sensors. As the article notes, this capability is useful for finding submarines as it “detects changes in the earth’s magnetic field caused by a large metal object,” such as yon u-boat. What is perhaps most interesting about the solicitation is that it calls for the UAVs to be expendable and launched from a P-8A Poseidon aircraft.

An aerial mothership in its pre-Indiana Jones heyday.

An aerial mothership in its pre-Indiana Jones heyday.

The concept of aerial motherhips is by no means new – one only need look back to the glory days of zeppelins with biplane detachments, or to the helicarrier in the recent movie The Avengers to get a sense of the breadth of idea. And the solicitation for the Poseidon doesn’t mark the first go at aircraft-launched UAVs:

In 2009, an expendable sonobuoy tube-launched UAV called Coyote was tested out a NOAA’s WP-3D Orion under an Office of Naval Research. A less successful small business grant was awarded to Lite Machines to modify its Voyeur UAV for sonochute launch.

Despite this, more attention is focused on surface and subsurface vessels playing the roles of motherships than aerial drone motherships. DARPA caused a stir earlier in 2013 by announcing the start of a UUV mothership program, named in a not-at-all-sinister fashion “Hydra,” that would be capable of launching embarked UAVs and UUVs, while Coastal Riverine Group-1 received the manned Coastal Command Boat UUV-launching mothership. Elsewhere, debate and intellectual energy is starting to explore the interplay of manned, unmanned, and autonomous aircraft and the tactical possibilities their combinations can provide.

Hydra’s take your daughter drone to work day.

Hydra’s take your daughter drone to work day.

Less attention has been paid to aerial motherships as the constant and exploring the pros and cons of using any of the following as variables:

1. The mission sets of the UAVs and how they would interact with other platforms.
2. Launching non-expendable UAVs.
3. Launching USVs or UUVs.
4. Motherships that are purpose-built (as opposed to ad-hoc such as the Poseidon).
5. Motherships that are themselves unmanned or autonomous.
6. Lighter-than-air (e.g. blimp) craft vs propeller or jet craft.

In many of these combinations the pros will be outweighed by the cons, but it’s possible there are some winning, creative combos worth discovering. An upcoming issue week at CIMSEC will be dedicated to naval drone concepts and tactics. In the latter I hope to explore these variables in more detail. As I’ve likely missed some salient points I look forward to incorporating your feedback.

This article appeared in its original form and was cross-posted by permission from CIMSEC’s NextWar blog

Posted by LT Scott Cheney-Peters in Aviation
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  • I appreciate the photo of USS Macon.
    Some years back, the Navy put out a Request for Information for Lighter-than-Air systems that might be used for BAMS and Logistics.
    The true utility of modern LTA craft gets lost in the historic limitations of blimps and zeppelins. It is unfortunate; akin to not using modern jets because wood and canvas airplanes were so limited once upon a time.

    Despite the failures of the Pentagons’ most recent foray into lighter-than-air craft; which involved the Air Force farce of the “HALE-D” airship, and the Armys’ own laughable “LEMV” so called “hybrid airship”; there is a truly immense potential for properly designed, constructed, and operated airships.

    For BAMS, for Logistics, for use as “motherships”; et. al.

    I will be pleased to discuss these with all:
    Darrell Campbell

    turtleairships AT hotmail DOT com

  • RightCowLeftCoast

    In developing this unmanned and automated systems I fear that we have become to trusting of our current non-opposed use of the majority of the EM spectrem for use of command and control of these systems. As we have seen before, if a potential adversary is resourceful and intellegent enough, they can make our perceived strengths into our faults. With limited budgets for research, development, and aquisition it is easy to believe in the promises of these unmanned and automated systems due to the hoped reduction of manning, force multiplication, and expanded areas of survaillance. However, let us seriously wargame usage of these systems so we can learn their weaknesses so that we can understand their limitations, and implement remedies. Otherwise, when the shooting starts, are warfighters will have systems that they are told are amazing, but with capabilities aren’t realized in non-ideal conditions, all while facing an enemy who wants to kill them or assume control of those unmanned and/or automated systems for their own benefit.