Submarine aircraft carriers

A reader tips me off to this discussion on Warship Projects Discussion Boards 3.0 about the idea of submarine aircraft carriers. The lead post includes this pic:

This is different than most plans for this idea, as it is not merely a helicopter carrier, a seaplane carrier, or a VSTOL carrier, but, in fact, a full flight deck flat-top. That submerges.

According to the drawing, the boat is 500 feet long and displaces 12,000 tons. (For comparison, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine is 560 feet long and displaces 16,000 tons.) Now, using MS Paint, I determined that the drawing is 974 pixels in length, meaning that each pixel is about 0.51 feet. That makes the planes drawn on the flight deck about 21 feet long (41 pixels) with a wingspan of about 23 feet (45 pixels). For comparison, the A-4 Skyhawk was 40 feet long with a 27 foot wingspan. The earlier straight-winged F-9 Panther was 38 feet by 38 feet. Even the F4U Corsair from World War 2 was 33 feet long with a 41 foot wingspan. The point is, don’t look at the little planes drawn on the flight deck and think that it represents how much room there really would have been.

It seems to me that a sub operating a 20-30 naval aircraft would not be smaller than a sub carrying two dozen missiles to be launched from vertical tubes. It would have to be, in fact, much larger. I know that there are a lot of proposals out there for various STOL aircraft, and maybe this design planned on using one of them. The discussion board, in fact, has some in for on a proposed Douglas Attack Airplane Model 640 that might have fit the bill. Still, this looks pretty shaky to ol’ Murdoc.

The flight deck would be about 413 feet long 81 feet wide ( 809 pixels by 158 pixels). By comparison, Independence-class light carriers from World War 2 had flight decks 552 feet by 73 feet and they were not really usable for fixed-wing aircraft in the post-war period as the first jets were coming on line.

And can you imagine the sonar signature of this puppy when submerged? The whole idea behind submarines is that they hide underwater and cannot be found. And it says it has a submerged speed of 35 knots. Who do they think they’re kidding? Cavitating props? Super-cavitating props? How about super-duper-cavitating props? Kids building sandcastles on the beach could probably hear this thing rumbling past.

So you were right. This drawing appears to be a total crock.

Still, I’ve always liked the idea of a submarine carrier, no matter how unfeasible it probably is. I went rooting around MO for something I knew that I had written some time back, but finally found it in the comments section of a Hell in a Handbasket post on this subject. I’m going to reproduce two of my comments on that post here, and I suggest checking the whole thing out.

I wrote

When I was a kid I used to use my dad’s old drafting stuff to design all sorts of weird things.

One of the things I worked on for a while was a modified GEORGE WASHINGTON class Polaris/Poseidon missile boat (this was before the Tridents were in service) modified to carry and operate this fancy-schmancy British VTOL aircraft called the Harrier. I recall that I managed to fit either five or seven of the things inside the hull, along with room for supplies and an elevator to a little one-plane launch/recovery deck.

I wish I still had all those drawings.

Yes, I was a weird child…


I remember not being sure how to deal with stowage of the aircraft, since it was a first-in-last-out thing as they only fit one wide and there was only one “door” for them to enter/exit. And that was if there was a way to fold the wings down somehow.

Not such a problem unless a damaged plane came back after the healthy ones, which would leave the good ones stuck behind the sick one. I recall lying awake at night trying to come up with a solution. I used little F4s from a plastic model kit of the USS INDEPENDENCE on a paper diagram to “simulate” operations. Man, was I WEIRD.

This was back when I figured a shooting war (toe-to-toe with the Rooskies, so to speak) would put a lot of our carriers on the ocean floor within a few weeks and we’d need a viable back-up plan to put planes out over the North Atlantic.

I really wish I had those drawings to see how far off from reality I was.

To be honest, at first glance I seem to think that my plans “looked” more reasonable than this drawing here. Still, who knows? I sure wish I had saved them.


  1. For some reason I seem to recall that the Japanese in WW2 had a couple of subs with the ability to launch a plane while surfaced. …could be wrong. Today I would expect that while submerged launching, and possibly recovering, flying drones would be a very handy thing.

  2. Sam: Right you are. The Japanese had a bunch of seaplane carriers, the largest being the I-400s, which could carry three planes. They’d launch by catapult. We captured them at the end of the war.

  3. Maybe a sub that launched UAVs would be feasable. But then wouldn’t It have to remain near the surface to maintain control? The Japs built a submersable aircraft carrier during WW2. I think it carried two amphibious planes. It would surface, use a crane to place the planes in the water. Then they would take off and attack something. It was originally designed to attack CONUS. It’s an interesting idea.

  4. Tim Reed: Not necessary exactly, an antenna buoy could be floated. However, since it would be radiating quite a bit it would certainly be detectable. Maybe with a really long cable, it could be floated far enough from the sub that it wouldn’t actually give away its position. That would be hard to arrange. I think a carrier is safer, on the surface, with lots of escorts than it would be beneath the surface and by itself or with a couple of other subs. All it will take it a plane with a MAD sensor and a couple of torpedos to sink it this way. If it has surface escorts, what’s the point of having it submerge?

  5. Perhaps in order for it to perform a suprise airstrike? Such as a strike on a high level target without giving away its position or the fact that its on its way to the staging point? I think those are major features of a submerged carrier.

  6. Drones wouldn’t have to be controlled from the sub, the sub would just have to be there to launch it and then recover it 24 hours or whatever later. Predators are flown by satelite link from the us all the time, and global hawks already fly their missions with minimal human interferance.

  7. Oh, and I forgot to comment on the ‘retractable’ conning tower. Now THAT would be a fun thing to see someone try and implement… Also, a sub that wanted to launc a standard aircraft could never have the standard bottlenose bow. Having waves break over your flight deck would slightly complicate flight operations.

  8. How many screen doors does this thing have? Seriously, its hillarious. Surpise attacks? more surprising than an aircraft carrier a thousand miles away? How about if we took a large icbm, filled it with mirved conventional bombs. CONUS basing. ability to drop the equivelent of 10-50 250 pound bombs, each on a different target?

  9. Why a conning tower? Wouldnt launching unmanned aircraft through the missle silos with the steam application be more cost effective and make more sense? They could then recover the aircraft when it makes a soft landing on the water and bring it to the dock under the sub, and restart the process. btw, im only 17 so my military knowledge and terms arent huge, but im getting there

  10. While this idea appears laughable, if one extrapolates advances in stealth technologies and robotic UCAV’s it may not be as nutty as it sounds. W/O a pilot, how small can effective UCAV’s get and how many ‘smart’ VW bug-sized UCAVs could you fit on such a ship? How many G’s could you apply to launch and recovery? How many UCAVs fit inside a ship W/O pilot quarters? How many Play Station 2’s would you need to run a squadron or 2. Would an X-box or Nintendo game station be able to control more than 2 squadrons? Would Coke or Pepsi get the soda dispensing rights in the ships Mess?

  11. you could instead have an air carrier with UCAV’s launched from a very large blimp at extreme altitudes. Why just think of carriers as watery transport?

  12. Another approach would be to build armed seaplanes that resupplied from fairly bare bones conventional submarines loaded with jet fuel and a suite of rooms for pilots between missions.

  13. Has nobody noticed the notation in the bottom right corner? ‘October 1963 Proceedings’ That would make it contemporaneous with the Air Force’s Manned Observatory Laboratory (MOL).

  14. Some of these compromises came up with the inter-war French submarine, the Surcouf, which was also intended to use submergence for stealth and carry out other operations from the surface – a different role from other submarines of the time, effectively a submersible cruiser. Some of its solutions may be applicable here. The deck problem was solved during the Second World War; see for details, or google on Brodie system – it was for launching as well as landing. Now ‘all’ that’s needed is development, not research: hangaring, avoiding aircraft obstructing each other (which was a problem they faced with the rather similar system for scout planes on the large US airships, and more or less solved), and getting the cable masts rigged and stowed quickly and easily. STOL aircraft would help a lot too, but only an idiot would try out several new things at once. Oh, and the Germans used towed, engineless autogyros behind submarines to spot enemies approaching. I don’t know what arrangements they had for stowing, but that might also be relevant. The autogyros – gyrogliders, actually – had to provide protection for the pilots, as otherwise poor morale might make them come down to report rather than risk being left behind; a post war British report on them described how, in emergency, the pilot set off an escape sequence that separated the tow cable and the rotor with explosive bolts and released a parachute for the whole vehicle so the pilot could descend safely to the surface ‘where he drowned in the usual manner’.

  15. I keep wondering who in the world will need pools on the aircrafts. They’ll better speed up flying and as far as I understand the easier the craft the easier it is to speed up flying.