An F-100 fighter tests out zero-length launch. Air Force photo

These Weird Warplanes Didn’t Need Runways

Turned out to be a terrible idea, as Steve Weintz explains

Warplanes’ biggest vulnerability is their runways. Modern airfields are no match for modern weapons; bunker-busting munitions can crater the thickest concrete.

There was a brief period after World War II when the U.S. military thought it had a solution: simply design planes that didn’t require runways!

But it really didn’t work very well.

In the late 1940s the U.S. Navy drew up plans for a so-called ”Seaplane Strike Force” consisting of float-equipped bombers, fighters and transports able to use harbors and islands as bases.

Besides the vulnerability of land bases, the concept was also motivated by the sheer size of the day’s atomic weapons, which precluded deploying them aboard aircraft carriers. But when smaller nukes and bigger carriers came along — not to mention the Polaris sub-launched ballistic missile — the seaplane armada scheme lost its luster.

But the Navy would try again to free its planes from concrete or steel airstrips, this time via a concept initially developed by its twin mortal enemies: the Nazis and the U.S. Air Force.

The Navy’s experimental Sea Dart fighter took off from the water. Navy photo

In their heyday the Nazis cranked out huff-smoking concepts for jet tail-sitters, rocket interceptors and roto-jet fighters and other no-runway warplanes — many of which never progressed past a few blueprint drawings or a plywood mock-up or two. Most of these novel plane designs threatened their pilots with extreme discomfort and spectacular deaths.

Over in the U.S. around the same time, car designer Alex Tremulis worked out a rocket fighter for the Army Air Force that looked like Captain America’s barnstormer. Meanwhile the British fielded rocket-powered catapult-launched “Hurricat” fighters off of merchant ships in a full-throated efforts at convoy defense during the Battle of the North Atlantic.

Some of these goofy ideas were pursued by the American “Pogo” and French Coléoptère projects, but as Greg Goebel of notes, “[l]anding was a frightening procedure and the concept did not inspire enthusiasm.”

After the war the Air Force was keen to avoid what it considered a “nuclear Pearl Harbor,” in which its bombers and fighters might get caught on the ground during a Soviet atomic strike. The B-47 Stratojet, America’s first jet-powered nuclear bomber, used small solid-fuel ignition packs to get its engines quickly spun up and fuselage-mounted rockets to hurl its bulk into the air using as little runway as possible.

If small strap-on rockets could shorten launch distances, bigger rockets might hurl a plane into the sky with a takeoff run of zero feet — or so the Air Force believed despite the idea’s poor reception during World War II. Goebel gives an excellent account of the USAF’s “Zero-Length Launch” concept and the Soviets’ counterpart efforts.

Submarine aircraft carrier concept. Via Scott Lowther

Using then-state-of-the-art missile technology, manned jet fighters could indeed be fired into the air from the back of truck beds. Such aircraft could be rapidly deployed from hardened shelters aboard their mobile launchers, dispersed about the countryside and hurled forth into combat on plumes of rocket fire.

The takeoffs were the easy part. Test pilots described the uncanny experience of smoothly surging into the air from atop a rail then simply taking over the controls. During one test an F-104 pilot performed a barrel roll after separating from his booster.

But landing without a runway was more challenging, and here creativity ran up against physics. Goodyear made a giant airbag — no, seriously — to catch the falling jet plane safely. It didn’t work. Later the Air Force gave up on saving the plane and pilots would be told to simply bail out over friendly territory.

The Air Force eventually abandoned Zero-Length Launch, but the Navy considered giving it another go. In 1958 Boeing proposed a submarine aircraft carrier to the Navy that relied on ZLL to hurl its aircraft into the sky. The planes would have been launched from the sub’s deck while the vessel was surfaced and would have landed … somewhere else. But no one ever figured out where, exactly, so the submarine carrier never got built.

The biggest drawback of the whole Zero-Length Launch concept was its one-way nature. For all the promise of warplanes freed from vulnerable runways, the Americans never could get comfortable with simply throwing away aircraft and their crews.

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Next Story — To Beat China, the Navy Could Launch Tiny Spy Drones From Submarines
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A U.S. submarine launches a cruise missile in a 2003 test. Navy photo

To Beat China, the Navy Could Launch Tiny Spy Drones From Submarines

Three-inch robot could spot targets for cruise missiles


One of the biggest problems with submarines is that they’re, well, submarines. Spending most of their time alone and underwater, there’s no easy way for subs to communicate with other forces to get the latest updates on the enemy’s location.

Undersea vessels’ stealth and firepower make them by far the most powerful warships for full-scale war. Solve the comms problem and they become even deadlier.

Hence the Navy’s new three-year science project. The Advanced Weapons Enhanced by Submarine UAS Against Mobile Targets program—a.k.a. “Awesum”—is developing a small Unmanned Aerial System that can be launched from below the waves and fly for up to an hour, spotting targets and relaying their coordinates back to the sub via a special radio signal aimed at the sub’s above-water mast.

Rear Adm. David Johnson, who oversees U.S. sub production, detailed Awesum in an October presentation in Virginia.

In testing until 2015, Awesum is meant to provide “target solution for over-the-horizon, third-party strike” in an “anti-access, area-denial environment,” according to Johnson.

Translated into English, that means the tiny robot should be able to sneak hundreds of miles through enemy air defenses and pinpoint the bad guys so that the submarine can take them out with cruise missiles. All without the sub breaking cover.

Awesum, a three-inch wide, cylindrical drone with a tiny battery-powered propeller and pop-out wings, is launched through the water and into the air via the same small tubes that subs use to deploy underwater noisemaker decoys. Flying for up to an hour, guided by GPS, the ‘bot beams back data to the launching vessel’s OE-538 radio mast, which the sub crew can poke just above the surface for short periods of time.

Navy art

According to Johnson, Awesum drones can be launched in succession along the same path to form a “daisy chain,” each tiny drone relaying radio signals from the one ahead of it in order to bend the datalink over the horizon back to the sub.

This stealthy targeting wasn’t possible before. For decades subs have carried long-range cruise missiles for destroying targets on land. But there was no elegant way for an undersea vessel to figure out where to aim the weapons.

A sub usually entered a war zone with targets’ coordinates pre-loaded. To get an update, an undersea boat had to spend vulnerable minutes with its mast above water, receiving large amounts of info from friendly ships, planes or satellites.

To remain hidden in enemy waters, subs need to be able to gather targeting data on their own—and discreetly.

The targeting problem has become more acute in recent years as Washington shifts its naval forces to the Pacific to confront an increasingly belligerent and heavily-armed China. Beijing’s sophisticated complex of mobile radars and long-range missiles form a kind of no-go zone for American ships and planes that extends a thousand miles or more from the Chinese coast.

Only submarines are stealthy enough to get close to these land-based defenses and take them out, clearing a way for other U.S. forces to attack. But to find these on-the-move Chinese defenders, subs need drones. Robots “will provide submarines a fully organic capability to detect, identify, precisely locate and quickly strike,” Owen Cote, a submarine expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in a 2011 paper.

If Awesum works as advertised, the Navy could add them to its roughly 50 attack submarines starting in just a few years, transforming the subs into free-ranging cruise-missile strikers. And with bigger and better subs being planned, bigger and better sub-launched drones might not be far behind.

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Next Story — China Is Trying to Copy America’s Naval Radar Plane
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E-2 landing. Wikimedia Commons photo

China Is Trying to Copy America’s Naval Radar Plane

Taiwanese spies caught helping Beijing build E-2 clone


China’s building a second aircraft carrier—a bigger, more capable flattop to take over from Liaoning, a refurbished Russian vessel that Beijing is using to learn naval aviation fundamentals.

And the new carrier could have a powerful new radar plane, thanks to China’s efforts to copy—and steal—details of the America’s own E-2 Hawkeye early-warning aircraft.

In late October, authorities in Taipei revealed that a major in the Taiwanese air force—part of a ring of up to 20 turncoats—had been caught trying to sell technical data on the E-2 to Chinese agents. Taiwan operates six of the twin-engine E-2s, which feature a large rotating radar dish atop their fuselages for detecting ships and airplanes hundreds of miles away.

Taiwan flies its Hawkeyes from land, but the U.S. and French navies use their own E-2s aboard aircraft carriers. The Northrop Grumman-built radar planes are among the most important aircraft on a flattop. Crewed by “battle managers,” they spot targets and help plot courses for jet fighters and other planes.

Rugged, compact and optimized for short takeoffs and landings, the E-2 is ideal for shipboard use. But it requires a catapult to boost it off a carrier’s deck. China’s rebuilt first flattop Liaoning does not have a catapult and therefore cannot operate large, heavy planes like the Hawkeye. But the second carrier, currently under construction, does have a catapult—if a few blurry photos are any indication.

A “cat”-equipped second carrier could carry radar planes, giving its air wing many of the same capabilities that currently only the Americans and French possess. Chinese state industry has been hard at work on a basic airframe similar in layout to the E-2. The first photos appeared in 2011—and in 2012 a miniature Hawkeye-style plane was displayed incongruously on an official-looking scale model of Liaoning.


That JZY-01 radar plane prototype appeared in high-resolution photos in July 2012. But it was unclear then—and remains unclear today—what kinds of internal electronic systems are installed on the JZY-01. That Beijing is trying to acquire data on Taiwan’s E-2s seems to imply that the Chinese need that information to improve the JZY-01.

Taipei is still assessing how much information the spy ring gave away and how damaging it might be. To be sure, China’s theft of the E-2 specs is consistent with the country’s wide-ranging espionage campaign targeting Western warplane development. Chinese hackers stole data from Lockheed Martin related to that firm’s F-35 stealth fighter.

That information may have contributed to Beijing’s recent production of a new stealth fighter prototype.

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Next Story — Now We Know What the Navy’s Next Submarine Will Look Like
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U.S. Navy art

Now We Know What the Navy’s Next Submarine Will Look Like

Admiral reveals five possible future sub designs 


For several years now the U.S. Navy has been planning to replace older attack and cruise-missile submarines with an improved version of the cutting-edge Virginia-class undersea boat. And in late October, Adm. David Johnson, the sailing branch’s top sub-builder, finally unveiled the new vessel’s possible configurations during a conference in Virginia.

Options for the so-called “Block V” Virginias range from a nearly 480-foot-long behemoth to a simpler model that’s just 450 feet from bow to stern. But all five proposed designs are longer than today’s standard Virginias, which measure just 380 feet.

And for a good reason. The Block Vs—the Navy wants to build 10 of them between 2019 and 2023—are expected to include a structural plug, known as a “payload module,” inserted in the middle of the standard nuclear-powered Virginia design. The module is meant to accommodate four vertical tubes that open to the water and can be accessed from inside the ship.

These payload tubes could carry sea-launched robots, divers or—most significantly—seven Tomahawk cruise missiles apiece. Combined with the six-round tubes already installed in the bow of a standard Virginia, a fully missile-loaded module would boost a sub’s Tomahawk count to an impressive 40 missiles. Each maneuverable, GPS-guided Tomahawk can fly a thousand miles at low level and hit a target with pinpoint accuracy.

The Navy wants the missile-heavy Block V subs to replace the current fleet of four dedicated cruise-missile submarines. The SSGNs, as they’re known, were modified in the early 2000s from surplus “boomer” boats carrying nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Each SSGN packs up to 154 Tomahawks. In 2011 the USS Florida cruise-missile sub fired at least 90 Tomahawks at targets in Libya, clearing the way for follow-on attacks by warplanes.

The SSGNs are all already nearly 30 years old and will retire in the mid-2020s, resulting in a precipitous decline in the Navy’s overall cruise-missile capacity. A force of 10 Block V Virginias would make up for around half of the missile shortfall. Subsequent Block VI and Block VII submarines could restore the other half.

General Dynamics Electric Boat in Connecticut, the Navy’s main submarine-builder, sketched out a basic, 94-foot payload module a few years ago. Last year, amid worsening budget uncertainty, the module options ballooned to five.

The longest three—97, 91 and 88 feet—differ in their precise layout and the number of new bulkhead walls they add to the baseline Virginia design. But they all preserve the sub’s 34-foot-diameter outline, “allow[ing] the platform to perform within key performance parameters,” according to Electric Boat vice president John Holmander

Two shorter and simpler options with 70-foot module plugs include humps on the sub’s hull allowing for slightly taller and therefore more voluminous tubes. But this “turtleback” arrangement comes with “attendant hydrodynamic and potential acoustic problems, especially at the higher speeds,” retired Capt. Karl Hasslinger and John Pavlos wrote in the Navy’s official Undersea Warfare magazine.

It’s costing $500 million just to develop the Block V design. Today’s Virginias cost slightly more than $2 billion apiece to build—and with the Block V module that unit price could rise by hundreds of millions of dollars. Whichever Block V layout the Navy chooses in coming years, it won’t come cheap.

But new submarines are among the sailing branch’s top priorities—and rightly so. Stealthy and heavily armed, undersea boats are by far the most powerful warships for full-scale warfare. With their planned extensions and more missiles, the Block V subs could be the deadliest yet.

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Next Story — It Took 5,000 Years to Build Aleppo—And Two Years to Destroy It
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Juma Al Qassim photo

It Took 5,000 Years to Build Aleppo—And Two Years to Destroy It

Syrian civil war devastates ancient city


The city of Aleppo in northern Syria lies at the historical crossroads of the world’s greatest civilizations. Ruled in turn by the Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mameluks, Ottomans and Syrians, the city’s ancient center bears the imprint of each group. Its towers, churches and markets are architectural treasures.

Juma Al Qassim photo

But the Syrian civil war could erase everything. For two years Aleppo has been a battleground: rebels battling each other and the regime of Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad plus Al Assad’s allies from Iran and Lebanon. “The old city witnessed some of the conflict’s most brutal destruction,” the Syrian government reported to the U.N.

Juma Al Qassim photo

Photographer Juma Al Qassim slipped into the ancient city in late October. He found destruction. But mostly he found silence—a once teeming historic city emptied of life.

Juma Al Qassim photo
Juma Al Qassim photo
Juma Al Qassim photo

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