The U.S. Air Force is set to begin testing its “Gremlins” concept by next year, a DARPA-sponsored research and development project, which some are calling a flying aircraft carrier.
Basically, the concept involves the creation of a new class of small, reusable drones that are launched from a C-130 transport plane before dispersing to surveil or attack targets as far away as 300 miles before returning to the C-130 ‘carrier’ to dock, refuel and rearm.
One of the objectives of Gremlins is to significantly extend the range the U.S. Air Force can operate in a contested environment when an adversary employs typical A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) tactics. This will likely include the deployment and use of cruise missiles to keep traditional aircraft carriers far enough away from the theater of operations as to render them ineffective.
Though C-130s are not stealthy and as such not ideal for penetrating enemy air defenses, following Phase 3 of the Gremlins project, the service will likely develop a stealthy ‘aircraft carrier’ to take over the role of the current transport.
Launched from a sea-going carrier, a stealthier transport plane would be able to penetrate enemy radar and air defenses, expel its drone payload, loiter, then recover the drones before leaving the airspace. [source]
(Analyst comment: We are seeing the development of next-gen strike capabilities. These will incorporate the use of drones and other non-traditional aircraft. Older systems are becoming much more detectable and, thus, vulnerable as peer- and near-peer competitors begin to field sophisticated defensive systems. Like the Navy, the Air Force is working to defeat enemy A2/AD systems with extended range strike capabilities including longer-range missiles and systems like Gremlins.)