Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works, famed for the U-2 and Blackbird spy planes that flew higher than anything else in the world in their day, is trying for a different altitude record: an airplane that starts and ends its mission 150 feet underwater. The Cormorant, a stealthy, jet-powered, autonomous aircraft that could be outfitted with either short-range weapons or surveillance equipment, is designed to launch out of the Trident missile tubes in some of the U.S. Navy's gigantic Cold Warâ€era Ohio-class submarines. These formerly nuke-toting subs have become less useful in a military climate evolved to favor surgical strikes over nuclear stalemates, but the Cormorant could use their now-vacant tubes to provide another unmanned option for spying on or destroying targets near the coast.
This is no easy task. The tubes are as long as a semi trailer but about seven feet wide-not exactly airplane-shaped. The Cormorant has to be strong enough to withstand the pressure 150 feet underwater-enough to cave in hatches on a normal aircraft-but light enough to fly. Another challenge: Subs survive by stealth, and an airplane flying back to the boat could give its position away.
The Skunk Works's answer is a four-ton airplane with gull wings that hinge around its body to fit inside the missile tube. The craft is made of titanium to resist corrosion, and any empty spaces are filled with plastic foam to resist crushing. The rest of the body is pressurized with inert gas. Inflatable seals keep the weapon-bay doors, engine inlet and exhaust covers watertight.
The Cormorant does not shoot out of its tube like a missile. Instead an arm-like docking "saddle" guides the craft out, sending it floating to the surface while the sub slips away. As the drone pops out of the water, the rocket boosters fire and the Cormorant takes off. After completing its mission, the plane flies to the rendezvous coordinates it receives from the sub and lands in the sea. The sub then launches a robotic underwater vehicle to fetch the floating drone.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is funding tests of some of the Cormorant's unique systems, including a splashdown model and an underwater-recovery vehicle. The tests should be completed by September, after which Darpa will decide whether it will fund a flying prototype.
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This has to be the best example of "corporate welfare" I have seen in over 20 years of government consulting.
It is a solution for a problem that does not exist. If that mission is to defend the USA, it fails because this is an offensive weapon and we already have plenty of them without having to make them jump through 150 foot-deep hoops in the ocean. Inventing an airplane that flies out of a submarine is supposed to be a punchline - not a weapon system that will be impossible to maintain in that very alien environment.
Unfortunately, the only mission it will ever fulfill is to keep Lockheed Martin's shareholders flush with taxpayer money to support a program that they would never approve for such a worthless endeavor. The Ohio-class submarines were the best in the ocean for winning a thermonuclear war - but not now. This fleet of submarines needs to be mothballed and DARPA needs to transform itself into developing solutions for the world's problems - not how to spy on our citizens or blow up people in other countries who deserve their day in court, judged by a jury of their peers - not some spooks in a dark room conducting push-button wars.
DARPA needs to help the civilian government achieve the dreams that citizens asked for and were promised - like the Highway in the Sky from the FAA, which was supposed to bring more light sport aircraft to the market that were easier to fly using a next-generation air traffic control system that works more like your automated GPS than the complicated NAV/COM system in use today. Everyone was supposed to be able own an affordable aircraft for their family & business trips. That was supposed to be an economy-boosting industry, but never saw much more than expensive studies to show it's viability and cool animations with slideshows. That is what our government delivers today - hype for the taxpayers and weapon systems for shareholders' benefit.
Enforcing secrecy laws is a ridiculous holdover from the cold-war era and we need our government to transform from a paranoid state to a real world economy where everyone has the opportunity for an education and a job - but not before providing them with basic needs, like clean water and living conditions instead of drones and NSA surveillance. You may think that I am talking about foreign countries like Burma not having clean water, but it is rampant here in the USA too - hell, we will not let minorities vote in some southern states now that they are brave enough to show up at the polls - what a great country we live in!
It is a simple matter of prioritizing the practical aspects of our lives - not making up Buck Rogers-type fantasies like this, which I am mortified to learn today is already in progress.
If you have the power and influence to change our country's course - I plead for you to do something now, because we are already in dire straits - we just aren't being allowed to know how bad it is. Wouldn't you be mad if you learned our future was much bleaker than you had imagined and we could have avoided it - but for some rich people who only care about being richer? Those people used to reinvest in America, but that never happens anymore. So sad.
Not a great idea.
had I been a director of DARPA, I would have directed to produce a system aiming disarmament of all weapon or anti-human arsenal around the world