The Navy Experimented With Turning Its Attack Jets Into Submarine Hunters 50 Years Ago

The experiment was far ahead of its time in many ways and came in part as a result of the Navy looking to fit every mission onto its supercarriers.

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Each time I manned my S-3A Viking, back in 1987, I walked past A-6E Intruders and A-7E Corsair IIs parked in various spots on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz. If you had been walking with me and told me that these classic tactical air, or TACAIR, aircraft had once dropped sonobuoys in the hunt for submarines, I would have stopped, given you a sideways glance with a dumbfounded look, and laughed. Thirty years later, had you been sitting across the table from me, you would have laughed at that astonished look I got when I first read about Intruders, Corsair IIs, Hawkeyes, and Electric Intruders doing Anti-Submarine Warfare, or ASW. It was true. And it was all a part of a period of great turbulence and adjustment that forced the US Navy to rethink how to effectively utilize the aircraft carrier and the aircraft that flew from her deck.

The year was 1971 and summer was just arriving amid an onslaught of change that was occurring across the U.S. military. The Vietnam War remained the central focus of the nation as 'Vietnamization' of the conflict was underway and incremental U.S. troop withdrawals were being realized. Congress, reeling from domestic turmoil, had been seeking ways to pay the exorbitant bill incurred from the unpopular war and found them through reduction of the unpopular military’s annual budget. Unnoticed by the press and the general public, an aircraft carrier battle group (CVBG) slipped its moorings and set out from Mayport, Florida to fight another battle in that other war being waged around the globe: the Cold War.

On June 7th, 1971, the USS Saratoga (CVA-60), along with her escorts and support ships, first made their way into the North Atlantic before turning south and then east into the Mediterranean Sea for what would be a very odd and special deployment – a four-month experiment that would test a new concept in ASW and introduce a remodeled way of thinking about what “aircraft carrier” could mean to the United States Navy. It turns out, these tests may very well have been decades ahead of their time.

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U.S. Navy tugs maneuver the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CVA-60) into her berth at Mayport, Florida (USA), circa 1971. 

A Very Brief History Of A Changing Concept

In the first full year after the United States declared war on the Axis in December 1941, the U.S. and British navies conceptualized the use of small escort carriers (CVE) and their handful of aircraft as a consistent solution to fill the "air-gap" in the U-boat-infested mid-Atlantic and provide desperately needed air defense for convoys fighting the relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe along the run to the Soviet port of Murmansk. Just as this approach was being fully fleshed out in early 1943, the United States changed its strategy.

While the British chose to keep their escort carriers with the convoys, knowing the U-Boats would come to them, the American Navy decided to build hunter-killer groups around the CVE and venture off into the broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean in search of the notoriously elusive prey. The U.S. Navy, hoping to capitalize on the successful efforts of the codebreakers and exploit German submarines' over-reliance on excessive communication with their naval commands, rolled the dice in an offensive gambit to catch the U-boats at their most vulnerable moments.

By the war’s end, both navies felt their use of the CVE was the better option.

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Surfacing after a depth charge attack, this Nazi submarine, which tried to sneak into the midst of an Atlantic Convoy, has had its conning tower blasted open by gunfire.

As the post-war adversarial relationship with the Soviet Union was fully realized, the need for a dedicated ASW aircraft carrier task force grew as a counter to the perceived “1,000 submarines” the Russians were believed to be building. The Navy decided its war-time concept of a hunter-killer group, once again centered around a CVE, was the only solution.

With North Korea’s crossing of the 38th Parallel on June 25th, 1950, the Navy felt it was ready to counter the anticipated Soviet submarine operations against allied aircraft carriers deployed to Korean waters. The handful of escort carriers still in service, each loaded down with a squadron of the newly minted Grumman Guardian team of the AF-2W ‘hunter’ and AF-2S ‘killer’ aircraft, were deployed to meet the threat. However, the Russians never showed.

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The U.S. Navy anti-submarine "hunter-killer-team" of the early 1950s: A Grumman AF-2W Guardian "hunter" (with APS-20-radar, in the foreground), and an AF-2S "killer" (background), both from Anti-Submarine Squadron 25 (VS-25).

The Guardians were off-loaded in Japan and F4U Corsair fighters were embarked to fly close air support missions in support of U.S. Marine Corps operations for the remainder of the war, primarily off the west coast of Korea. Although ASW missions were still flown by a small handful of aircraft patrols from the decks of the larger allied fleet carriers, no confirmed subsurface threat materialized.

After the Armistice was signed in 1953, the “baby flattops” were returned to reluctant ASW aircrews who were in the process of exchanging their two-ship Guardians for the Grumman S-2 Tracker that singularly embodied both hunter and killer. However, the twin-engine aircraft’s unfolded wings spanned 72 feet in contrast to the Guardian’s 60-foot span.  The pilots and enlisted aircrew complained that the slow, aging, and diminutive CVEs could not truly accommodate this new aircraft and effectively engage the once-again worrisome Soviet submarine threat.

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USS Block Island (CVE-106) in 1953 with Grumman AF-2W and AF-2S Guardian hunter-killer teams on deck.

Facing the realities of limited wars that required conventional forces, the advent of the supercarrier, the inevitable merging of nuclear power with both U.S. and Soviet submarines, and the concerns of the ASW aircrews, the Navy was forced to reconsider its beliefs about what an aircraft carrier should be. The solution? Simply add some letters after the “CV” designation and work out the complicated, but essential changes that those additional letters would bring to the aircraft carrier.

The “attack carrier,” or CVA, would embark the fleet’s fighter and attack aircraft, while the “anti-submarine carrier,” or CVS, would continue the much-loved hunter-killer concept and embark both fixed-wing and rotary-wing ASW aircraft.  The CVEs were decommissioned and 19 of the battle-hardened Essex class aircraft carriers would be converted to the anti-submarine role. Three Essex class boats would retain their fighter and attack aircraft and be included in the redesignation of the Midway and Forrestal class carriers as CVAs.

The High Cost And Evolution Of Concepts

In the absence of fiscal restraint and in light of its increasingly complicated role as leader of the free world that marked the 1950s and early 1960s, Washington found many uses for its growing carrier fleet. To counter Soviet expansion, two attack carrier battle groups and at least one anti-submarine carrier battle group (CVSG) maintained an influential presence in the Mediterranean Sea to support U.S. diplomatic strategies and respond to varying flashpoints as the land and seascape of the Cold War world drastically changed. The 7th Fleet maintained a wary eye on a stirring China and a growing Soviet Pacific Fleet as both communist countries played the Southeast and Central Asian chessboard. At least one CVBG and one CVSG checked the clever and aggressive communist moves.

Then, once again in Asia, the Cold War turned hot.

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The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) refueling from the fleet oiler USS Ashtabula (AO-51), while operating off the coast of Vietnam, circa in January 1966.

Amid technological arrogance, governmental fear, and micromanagement, the Vietnam War drained the national purse and bled the military of its trust in unlimited resources, its certainty of containing the Communist threat, and its tenuous faith in the single-mission weapon system. The era of the multi-role aircraft, warship, and aircraft carrier fell into the Navy’s lap as it no longer made sense to have two carriers where one would do.

When America's war in Vietnam really kicked off in 1964, the Navy had around 24 aircraft carriers available from the Essex, Midway, Forrestal, Kitty Hawk, and Enterprise classes. However, as it progressed and the purse strings tightened, the Navy had no choice but to once again rethink what an aircraft carrier should be in the face of continuing action in Vietnam, the growing blue water threat of the Soviet Navy, and the simple fact that it cost an enormous amount of money to build, maintain and operate a carrier battle group.

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S-2E Tracker display of weapons and sonobuoys

In the mid-to-late 1960s, one major cost-cutting solution enacted was to begin decommissioning the Essex class aircraft carriers. Another cut came with the decision to replace and eventually retire the aging and increasingly ineffective S-2 Tracker. The emergence of Soviet anti-ship cruise missile submarines (SSGs) and the development and deployment of this lethal weapon system combined with nuclear power (SSGNs) a few years later, the Tracker quickly became obsolete. 

In the mid-1960s, the Navy proposed a jet-powered replacement, initially referred to as the VSX. This stood for “fixed-wing, carrier-based, anti-submarine warfare, experimental” aircraft – what would eventually become the S-3 Viking. At the time, the Navy had planned to fly the VSX aircraft from the Essex class CVS, that was, until fiscal priorities targeted these legacy carriers.

The Past Is Prologue

Sergey Gorshkov, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, most likely didn’t blink with the announced decommissioning of the Essex class carriers. While his primary focus for his naval forces had shifted to the detection and destruction of NATO and French ballistic missile submarines and the protection of his own, he still felt the aircraft carrier to be a threat of major proportion. And much to his liking, I’m sure, his deployment of second-generation Charlie and Papa class SSGNs and the relatively new Juliett class SSGs did nothing to ease the furrowed brows of U.S. Navy admirals.  

In light of this threat that simply wouldn’t go away, the worried admirals had to figure out a way to protect the remaining CVA supercarriers, find a suitable home for the ASW aircraft and crews orphaned by the dying CVS concept, satisfy the number crunchers in Washington and appease a TACAIR community that would have to live with their solution. What was that solution? Simply remove a letter from the “CVA” designation and work out the complicated, but essential changes that one less letter would bring to the aircraft carrier.

The multi-role carrier, or “CV,” would fit nicely into the definition of the Navy’s latest buzz-phrase: Sea Control.

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The lone example of the carrier-killer Papa class SSGN ever built, which, to this day, holds the record as the world's fastest submarine.

"The sea control concept is based on ‘generalized’ Fleet task units capable of conducting any type of combat operation required to maintain control of the seas, whether against surface, air, or submarine threat. This tactical reorientation from more specialized ships and task units provides greater flexibility of naval forces and more naval power for defense dollar spent."

Certainly, ASW was not the only focus of the multi-role carrier and sea control, but it was to be its most significant focal point of change for the CVAs and their air wings. 

Making Space For New Ideas And The Ugly Stepkid

As any sailor knows, one of the greatest difficulties on any ship is finding space for new ideas. Carving out deck space for large, ungainly ASW aircraft would require the sacrifice of other aircraft normally used by an Attack Carrier Navy focused on putting bombs on land-targets and missiles into the tailpipes of MiGs. They needed all the aircraft they could get to perform and support those missions. The loss of their precious commodities would be a painful change in mindset and practice for everyone involved. 

What would it cost a TACAIR-centric air wing to add ten S-2 Trackers and up to eight additional SH-3 Sea Kings, their crews and squadron members, squadron offices and maintenance shops, squadron berthing, larger aviation gas (AVGAS) storage tanks, anti-submarine torpedoes, depth charges and sonobuoys aboard the newly conceptualized CV? According to Norman Friedman, in his US Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History, the expensive price paid would be four F-4 Phantom IIsfrom the two fighter squadrons and four attack aircraft from the two A-7 squadrons. 

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SH-3 Sea King ASW helicopter and its dipping sonoar.

Worse still, the carrier would have no strike reconnaissance aircraft essential to accurate planning and assessment of combat missions. The RA-5C Vigilante, the primary reconnaissance asset at the time, was too large to remain on the flight deck and would have to fly from a shore base, severely limiting its usefulness to the CVBG.

But finding space above and below deck wasn’t the only dilemma. Room had to be made in the TACAIR mindset for ASW to fit, be accepted, and be successful.

The Trouble With Sexy

ASW is not fast. ASW is not popular. And, this being a most important point to many in Naval Aviation, ASW is not sexy.  

Unlike the constant subsurface threat to the aircraft carrier during World War II, the TACAIR jocks enjoyed almost three decades of progressively diminishing awareness of what a submarine could do to their home on the sea. Why worry about something they could not see, feel, taste or smell? Such ASW geekery was left to the escorts and the CVSGs. 

Unfortunately for the jocks, Admiral Gorshkov and his submarine skippers continued to consider the CVA a primary target. Thankfully, senior US Navy officers, including older and wiser jocks, realized this. 

Sexy or not, it would be TACAIR that played a major role in developing what, at first, was offered as a possible final air-ASW solution for the multi-role carrier. 

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An F-4 launches of the deck of the USS Roosevelt. The fast-jet community within the Navy has always dominated the conversation. 

An Unlikely Someone Had Already Thought The Thought

In January of 1967, a short article was published in Proceedings, written by an S-2 Tracker pilot who also happened to be the commanding officer of Air Anti-Submarine Squadron 35 (VS-35). Commander Robert Harlow expressed concern that the VSX program aircraft being developed was in danger of becoming a miniature version of the P-3 Orion. In a drip of carrier-based sarcasm, he wrote that “The VS concept can be killed by simply allowing the [VSX] specifications to grow to patrol plane proportions; the VSX will not fit or P-3 Orions would be practicing carrier landings.” He went on to suggest discarding VSX altogether and going to a “VA/S” concept: 

"The A-6 Intruder is the aircraft: the A-6 has a favorable load factor, reasonable weight, excellent deck cycle time, outstanding range, adequate speed, slow carrier approach, wing store stations and all weather capability…"

Harlow’s idea turned out to be rather prophetic.

Ready Or Not, Here Come The Jocks!

In the ASW role, the CV concept imagined using the latest version of the Airborne Early Warning Hawkeye, the E-2B, and the combat-proven Electronic Warfare EA-6A ‘Electric Intruder’ to generate a submarine contact. Once a line-of-bearing, or a much more desired fix, was established, properly configured A-6 and/or A-7s would be sent out to lay a sonobuoy pattern and act as signal relay platforms. If the acoustic data confirmed the presence of a submarine, the TACAIR aircraft would be instructed to drop more sonobuoys to begin tracking the target until ASW aircraft could arrive on the scene.

A “properly configured” Intruder and Corsair II required them to mount a sonobuoy pod similar to the Aero 2A Sonobuoy/Flare Dispenser carried by the early 1950s-era Douglas AD Skyraider and Grumman AF Guardian hunter-killer teams. The pod carried by the A-6 and A-7 could easily be mistaken for a 300-gallon fuel tank. A relatively large number of sonobuoys could be stored in a pod that size and both attack jets had several hard-points where multiple pods could be mounted.  

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A drawing of an Aero 2A Sonobuoy/Flare Dispenser used by the AD Skyraiders and AF Guardians.

The pod was a clever way to carry the primary or complementary loadout of acoustic sensors. So much so that the concept would be resurrected in the 1980s and again in the 21st Century. Before the P-8 Poseidon, the first proposed replacement for the P-3 Orion was the Lockheed P-7A Long Range Air Anti-submarine warfare Capable Aircraft (LRAACA). In an effort to bring many more sensors to the hunt, a single P-7A would mount sonobuoy pods on several hardpoints and increase the number carried to an astounding 300 standard-sized buoys. Today, the unmanned ASW concept aircraft being developed uses externally mounted sonobuoy pods in a similar fashion. You can read all about this here

Another aspect of the “properly configured” TACAIR ASW aircraft required the sending of sonobuoy data back to the ship for analysis. Because the A-6 and the A-7 could not internally process or analyze the acoustic signals sent from the sonobuoys, another pod would be required to relay the data back to the aircraft carrier or one of the escorts. With a flip of a switch in the cockpit, the pilot applied power and the data would go automatically to an Anti-Submarine Classification and Analysis Center (ASCAC) aboard the carrier and possibly some of the escorts. Analysts in the ASCAC would then determine whether or not the contact was a submarine.

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A U.S. Navy Grumman A-6B Intruder (BuNo. 149957) of Attack Squadron 75 (VA-75) "Sunday Punchers" on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CVA-60) in the summer of 1971 

Finally, a natural benefit of having the Intruder and Corsair II take part in ASW was their remarkable weapons loadout capacity. The multiple hardpoints on both aircraft not only allowed them to drop sonobuoys and relay data, but they also provided the aircraft with the means to carry the weapons needed to disable or sink a first-generation Echo II SSGN or any variation of the Soviet SSG, all of which could not launch their anti-ship missiles without first surfacing and exposing themselves to attack. It’s worth adding that to my knowledge, no one had considered hanging ASW torpedoes on either aircraft.

At the end of June, 1971, the Navy decided to try out this re-imagining of the carrier and its air wing and the Saratoga battle group entered the Mediterranean Sea carrying the dream of a multi-role aircraft carrier with it.

The Dream Becomes A Reality

Although details of the evaluation of the TACAIR ASW aspect of the CV concept are extremely limited, there are two sources that shed the best light on how the missions were performed. An excellent overview can be found in an article in the March 1972 issue of Proceedings: “The ‘CV’: Capable Vigilance or Continued Vulnerability,” written by Navy Lieutenant James Coogan, the Intelligence Officer of the S-2 Tracker squadron (VS-28, the Gamblers) embarked aboard the Saratoga during the experiment. Another important source could be found in the book Intruder, written by Mark and Rick Morgan, offering a real-time glimpse into the carrier-level operations of this very odd mission set.

Once the Saratoga relieved the USS Forrestal (CVA-59), which had been on her Mediterranean deployment since January, work began in earnest to flesh-out the CV concept. Planned ASW exercises were conducted to evaluate whether or not the addition of TACAIR aircraft could contribute to the successful detection, classification, tracking, and destruction of a submarine.

If the exercise submarine raised its periscope or other masts to obtain targeting data, an E-2B from the Screwtops of Airborne Command and Control Squadron 123 (VAW-123) would be looking for a “radar pop-up.” If the presence of the masts were missed, then any energy sent by the submarine’s radar, even a single sweep, was at risk of being captured by a USMC EA-6A Electric Intruder that had joined the experiment utilizing their state-of-the art electronic support measures (ESM) suite.

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An EA-6A Electric Intruder from Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron Two (VMCJ-2), the "Playboys," aboard the USS America (CVA-66) in 1974.

Initially deployed on the Forrestal, the Playboys of Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron Two (VMCJ-2) cross-decked their small detachment of EA-6As to the Sara when she entered the Med. ASW was nothing new to the Corps, they just hadn’t flown regular patrols against a submarine since they hunted U-boats in their Douglas SBD Dauntless over the Caribbean Sea and Imperial Japanese Navy submarines in their PBJ Mitchell’s over the Pacific. In fact, even today, the USMC is developing plans to join the hunt for Russian and Chinese submarines.

If an Intruder from the Attack Squadron 75 (VA-75), the Sunday Punchers, or a Corsair II from either the VA-37, the Bulls, or the VA-105, the Gunslingers, were airborne with a sonobuoy and communication pod, they would be vectored to a radar fix or suspect ESM hit line-of-bearing. Controlled by the ASCAC, an A-7, for example, would fly out to the possible submarine location, also known as a datum. The Corsair II pilot would receive expanding search coordinates for the sonobuoy pattern on a secure voice link and enter each point of data into his Navigation/Weapons Delivery System (NWDS). This flight computer could also display these fly-to-points (FTPs) on the A-7’s revolutionary Heads-Up Display (HUD), aiding the pilot in capturing each FTP and automatically releasing a sonobuoy in the best geographic position for detection.  

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An A-7E Corsair II from VA-105, the Gunslingers, aboard the USS Saratoga (CVA-60).

Once the pattern was laid and no visual indication of a submarine was present, the A-7 pilot would climb up to an altitude that would allow the sonobuoy signals to be relayed to the ASCAC through the communication pod and acoustic analysis would begin. Once a contact was obtained, airborne ASW assets would be vectored to the datum. If not airborne at the moment, then the alert submarine-hunting aircraft would be launched.

The Outcome

In Lieutenant Coogan’s 1972 Proceedings article, he warned against drawing “hasty conclusions,” while alluding to “the release of a fully detailed study…” I’m sure that study was classified and might still be. I hope, one day, to get my hands on it for my research so we can understand just exactly what did and did not occur. Coogan did provide some hints that there were measured successes. He also clearly addressed inherent deficiencies that came to light as a result of the experiment.

The first is one I’ve touched upon above, but let me let you hear it in his expert voice:  

"Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the evaluation was the inability of the S-2E to successfully convert a submarine datum [into contact] with any degree of predictable confidence. The venerable S-2, long the backbone of the anti-submarine carrier force, proved far too slow to provide a reasonable ‘time-late’ arrival at the submarine datum. With a maximum of three S-2 aircraft airborne for a particular operational cycle, there was not the necessary coverage for quick conversion of a datum that it required for a successful localization and hold-down tactic."

During the different exercises that the Saratoga participated in, problems in planning and communication presented themselves in ways that none of the ASW professionals could have foreseen because, as Coogan wrote, “US destroyers [escorting the CVA] have had little opportunity to work with carrier air wings in a coordinated ASW role."

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F-4s waiting to launch and an A-7 blasting off the Saratoga's deck.

As for the fixed and rotary-wing ASW assets now flying from the attack carrier’s deck, they had to shift to a defensive ASW mentality whose sole mission was to keep cruise missiles or torpedoes from ever being fired against the carrier. An even larger problem reared its ugly head: the carrier battle group admiral and carrier captain enjoyed the added rotary-wing logistical assets and used them excessively for duties other than ASW.

During my time aboard the USS Nimitz and Theodore Roosevelt, the Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Nine (HS-9) aviators would express their frustration at having to haul cargo, VIPs, and chaplains around while their ASW skills atrophied. In his article, Lieutenant Coogan recommended that utility helicopters (SH-3G models) be utilized to handle all logistics and SAR/plane guard duties. Obviously, as history shows, the common sense of such a smart idea was lost on the Pentagon and Capitol Hill.

In their book Intruder, the Morgans provide insight into a real-time problem faced by the Saratoga during this period of operations:

"…while anchored off Athens the Sara started taking water through a massive failure of a gasket in the No. 3 Main Machinery Room (MMR). The ship went to General Quarters and was able to stop the sea’s inrush, although the ship reportedly took up to 49 feet of water before it was stopped.  Ten aircraft were launched from anchor to lighten the ship, which had assumed a nasty list, and at least one F-4J almost went into the water…Ten days later, the No.4 MMR flooded in a similar fashion, and for a period the ship was limited to only one-screw ops out of four…Despite the problem - particularly in gaining adequate wind over the deck - Saratoga continued the ASW operations on a limited basis through the remainder of the deployment."

USN. Robert L. Lawson Photograph Collection via Peter Greengrass. With thanks to Tommy Thomason

An F-4B launches from the USS Ranger (CVA-61) while moored in Yokosuka, Japan in 1963. While not a photo of the Saratoga incident, it's a depiction of how fixed-wing fighters can launch even while the carrier is pier-side, let alone at anchor.

Just An Interim Solution

The TACAIR ASW experiment came to an end with the arrival of the S-3 Viking in 1974. On the 30th of June, 1975, all Navy aircraft carriers were redesignated “CV.” As the final two decades of the Cold War made clear, the multi-role carrier concept was a crucial success in performing the ever-widening range of missions assigned to it, including attack and ASW.

Today’s Carrier Strike Groups, limited by the over-utilized helicopter squadrons and the uncertain coverage provided by the land-based P-8 Poseidon, seem to hearken back to this turbulent time of inadequate budgets and barely acceptable ASW assets. There simply isn’t enough money or platforms available to adequately maintain control of the sea in the face of a resurgent Russian Navy and the much more troubling rise of the formidable Chinese Navy. One might be tempted to ask: should we consider placing sonobuoy pods on Super Hornets or the new MQ-25 Stingrays and introducing the F-35C Lightning II to ASW? Come to think of it, the Stingray could not only drop sonobuoys, but also relay the acoustic data back to the carrier and her escorts. This is definitely the concept of operations that is emerging for some existing land-based and even sea-based unmanned aircraft

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The MQ-25 Stingray with its refueling pod during a flight test. 

Perhaps history does repeat itself. These new distributed ASW ideas are strikingly similar to those tested aboard the Sara 50 years ago. Since there is no long-range ASW aircraft currently flying from our aircraft carrier decks and if we’re not going to introduce an ASW version of the MV-22 Osprey (which we should seriously reconsider), then maybe it’s time to go back to the future and have TACAIR do ASW once again.

General Atomics

The Q-9/Predator-B series of aircraft are being tested for distributed ASW operations that are remarkably similar to what the Navy tested with manned tactical aircraft in the early 1970s. 

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com