Meet Project TERN: DARPA's Crazy Plan to Make Every Ship an Aircraft Carrier
Using drones, of course.
Key point: This potentially-brilliant idea would increase America's striking power without having to pay for more expensive full-size carriers.
The U.S. Navy is seeking to transform every ship into mini aircraft carriers.
Last month the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the start of the second phase of its Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program. TERN, a joint program between DARPA and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR), aims to create a system that would enable small ships to operate both intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and combat drones.
“The goal of Tern is to give forward-deployed small ships the ability to serve as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial systems (UAS),” DARPA said in a press release announcing Phase 2 of the program. “These systems could provide long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other capabilities over greater distances and time periods than is possible with current assets.”
Not only would Tern enhance the U.S. Navy’s strike capabilities, but it could also greatly reduce costs by decreasing the U.S. military’s reliance on expensive land-based air strips. “A capacity to launch and retrieve aircraft on small ships would reduce the need for ground-based airstrips, which require significant dedicated infrastructure and resources.” Land-based airstrips are also more vulnerable to enemy missiles, and frequently create tension with local populations.
Tern also potentially help reduce the U.S. Navy’s reliance on aircraft carriers. This is crucial as many fear that large aircraft carriers are growing obsolete amidst the proliferation of long-range precision-strike missiles to U.S. adversaries like China and Iran. Beijing, in particular, poses a vexing challenge to the U.S. Navy as missiles like the DF-21D— frequently dubbed the “carrier killer”— appear to be aimed at sinking America’s aircraft carriers.
An anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D is reportedly able to “carry a warhead big enough to inflict significant damage on a large vessel, providing the Chinese the capability of destroying a U.S. supercarrier in one strike.”
Once operational—both the missile and its kill chain—it will reportedly be able to strike a moving supercarrier at ranges of nearly 1,500 kilometers. Given the immense cost of America’s ten aircraft carriers, as well as the manpower required to operate them, the DF-21D will essentially force America to keep its carriers out of range from the Chinese mainland and many potential hot spots in the region.
Tern would help the United States overcome this issue by greatly increasing the number of targets China or another U.S. adversary would have to strike in order to destroy America’s strike capabilities. Indeed, according to The Motley Fool, the system that comes out of the Tern program could “permit MALE-sized drones to operate off ships as small as an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer—or even a smaller Independence—or Freedom-class frigate.” In other words, nearly every U.S. naval surface ship could become a mini aircraft carrier, especially as the U.S. Navy is moving completely away from manned aircraft after the F-35.
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Nor are surface ships the only mini aircraft carriers the U.S. Navy is seeking to develop to compensate for the growing missile threat. Back in 2013, the navy first “demonstrated the launch of an all-electric, fuel cell-powered, unmanned aerial system (UAS) from a submerged submarine.” For the time being, however, these drones are strictly for IRS purposes.
DARPA launched the Tern program back in 2013. In May of the following year, it signed a memorandum of understanding with ONR to make it a joint program.
The program has three planned phases. The first two phases focus on preliminary design and risk reduction for the Tern system. In Phase 3, a performer would be selected to build a full-scale demonstrator Tern system for ground-based testing, culminating in an at-sea demonstration of launch and recovery.
AeroVironment and Northrop Grumman were the two contractors selected for the second phase of the program. Dan Patt, DARPA's program manager for Tern, said that:
Our Phase 2 performers are each designing a new unmanned air system intended to enable two previously unavailable capabilities: one, the ability for a UAS to take off and land from very confined spaces in elevated sea states and two, the ability for such a UAS to transition to efficient long-duration cruise missions.
Zachary Keck is the former managing editor of The National Interest. He can reached on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck. (This first appeared in 2015.)