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US Air Force to test “flying aircraft carriers”

New project tests possibility of deploying multiple drones from transport aircraft

The US Air Force plans to test a new weapons platform designed to operate stealthily in contested airspace.

The program is dubbed “Gremlins” and it involves the use of “flying aircraft carriers” used to deploy large numbers of small-sized drones.

These drones are reusable and will be able to surveil or attack targets as far as 300 miles from their flying aircraft carrier, and then be able to return and restock for the next mission. The key development here is this ability to recover the drones and re-use them. DARPA is interested in the cost-reduction possibility this kind of platform may offer.

The carrier itself is likely to be something like a C-130 aircraft, or perhaps the forthcoming B-21 stealth long range bomber, presently under development by defense company Northrop Grumman.

A third possibility is more vague, involving the use of an MQ-25 drone, essentially a “flying fuel tank” according to recent specification requests.

The plan does not require stealthy characteristics for the carrier, since it can operate outside the conflict zones, but the drones are small, something like a super-sized Roomba, and it is believed they can easily penetrate an enemy’s airspace without warning, strike as required and then get back to their mothership, which is safe from detection either because of distance or stealth.

Northrop Grumman, DARPA (U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and Raytheon have all been involved in the development of this project.

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