Sometimes an idle thought crops up which doesn’t fit into my usually peaceful thoughts very well, but I like to think of it as a solution to a problem. This one came from thinking about the Falklands War and the short range of the Harrier Jump Jets and how they might be given a much longer combat range. Nowadays the US Marines have the new version of this airplane coming on line and they are expected to deploy them onto enemy targets from specialized ships which are in effect small aircraft carriers. The problem is that an enemy could probably keep track of exactly where these ships were located and thus have a good idea of where they might strike. These ships would be vulnerable to land based airplanes which generally have higher performance than ship based ones. What I am about to propose will seem audacious but doable and that is to put out to sea an invisible staging platform much closer to the target than the launching mother assault ship. For example if the cruise radius of the strike aircraft was known to be 500 miles and the mother ship was known to be 1,000 miles away the enemy targets would feel secure and thus be more bold in their activities. However, if it were known that the mother ship were 1,000 miles away and there might be invisible staging platforms much closer they would be forced to be much more circumspect in their behavior. My thoughts floundered around on how such a platform ship might be raised and controllably submerged without straining technology too much.
A submersible platform, not really a standard submarine, could be designed with the ability to submerge to some modest depth and then cruise into locations for the last 100 miles or so to about 50-150 miles out from the target area and remain there quietly for days or weeks. When the time was right it could rise to near the surface and lift its flight deck up out of the water a little just as a stealth vertical-landing aircraft or helicopter was descending to its precise location far out to sea. The aircraft could then be refueled and armed for the specific mission, take off and go do its mission. The platform would then immediately resubmerge and cruise to another hidden location. The aircraft could return for refueling either to this platform which is now a few miles away at a new secret location or go to some other platform located in some other remote part of the ocean which would give the first one more time to relocate.
Because the aircraft is stealthy it would be difficult to track far out to sea on radar and when it descended to a low altitude for the last several miles, which would include some changes of flight direction, the actual location of the stealth platform would be hidden by many square miles of sea. The platform would not have to move very fast when going from one station to another which would aid in its remaining stealthy.The platform would only be above the surface of the water while the airplane was being refitted, which might be only a few minutes if it was only being refueled. Rearming might take a little longer but if this were purpose built for that exact task even that might take only a few minutes.
The platform itself could be streamlined when moving from place to place but have extensible wings out to either side which would be extended while underwater to give a larger landing platform. The whole platform device could also have a shaft deployed vertically down, with a steerable propeller at the bottom to give it some roll stability. Also, the horizontal surface of the raised platform could be stabilized if it were gimbaled. Perhaps a locking support link could be shot into a target on the bottom of the airplane when it was very close to its proper location to the deck which could be used to pull the airplane into its proper position and lock it to the deck while it was being reloaded. This might then be coupled to a large diameter vertical pipe which would also lock into the bottom of the aircraft and hold it rigid. If that could be extended like a periscope when the aircraft was taking off, the whole airplane might be lifted to some height above the sea before being released. That would help prevent it from ingesting water into the engines from being too close to the water’s surface.
There are lots of problems associated with creating a submersible platform but they all seem like doable engineering problems and require nothing revolutionary to bring them into effect. If two of these were set in series the range of the aircraft could be greatly extended.
(update 2009/04/30) An alternate to this idea would be to have the refuel tanks specificly designed to be lifted up into a hovering air craft. These could be grappeled with a long dropped line with a self orienting and linking mechanism. Once attached the line the aircraft could be flown away and the tank lifted into its on aircraft position after it was actually underway. This container could have weapons as well as fuel.
This container could be operated independently without the platform and be wholey independent and fairly primitive. It could change its location and time at the surface by using the very low power boyancy type of motor found on ocean monitoring equipment.