There was a time, many years ago, when I read an article about the desirability to reduce the threat to aircraft carriers by building submarine aircraft carriers. The Japanese I boats carried scout seaplanes in a drydock hangar on deck during the Second World War, but that was not very robust. There had to be something better, the author opined. They just didn’t know how it could possibly work.

Physical difficulties with doing this began to be solved with the arrival of the SSGN (nuclear powered guided missile submarines).  The Russian SSGN (Oscar 1 and Oscar 2 Class) was purpose built to use anti-shipping missiles against US Carrier Battle Groups. Six are still in service with the Russian Navy and while they have been refit, they’re essentially forty year old boats with relatively inflexible missions. But give the Russians credit. Their efforts paved the way for a new generation.

The US Navy’s SSGNs started off as nuclear ballistic missile submarines and were converted with far more ambitious and far more flexible missions. Four Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines (SSBN)  were converted to guided missile submarines (SSGN). As the Navy transformed itself to meet modern demands, Special Operations Forces (SOF) play a greater role in the nation’s defense strategy. The converted submarines, now SSGN were also assigned the role of supporting SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams.  An SSGN will accommodate up to 66 SEALs, two Advanced SEAL Delivery Systems (ASDS), or two Dry Deck Shelters (DDS) or one of each. The DDS supports one MK-8 SEAL Delivery Vehicle each. In addition, the SSGN offers an improved high data rate communications capabilities and an onboard Battle Management Center.

On the SSGN, the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability modifyied 22 of the 24 missile tubes to hold seven Tomahawk missiles each, allowing for a maximum load of 154 Tomahawks.

The US has four submersible aircraft carriers.

  • USS Ohio (SSGN 726)
  • USS Michigan (SSGN 727)
  • USS Florida (SSGN 728)
  • USS Georgia (SSGN 729)

Doing the math, they have a combined total of 616 drone aircraft (Tomahawk Cruise Missiles)

-Each carry 154 aircraft, twice as many as a surface aircraft carrier.

-Each aircraft can be launched while the carrier is underwater.

-The aircraft are unmanned drones, but have amazing capabilities.

–They can fly hundreds of miles to the target area.

–Loiter in the area, sending back battlefield info to the submarine (carrier) or other control center.

–Identify new targets.

–Go into “Kamikaze” mode and fly into targets if desired.

–Carry nuclear warheads capable of destroying cities.

Tomahawk cruise missiles are essentially rocket launched drone aircraft with wings and a jet engine.

The Future

The SSGNs featured above are scheduled to be decommissioned within this decade.

The Navy is counting on enhancements to the Block V, a new version of the Virginia-class submarine partially to replace the SSGNs. These new submarines boost each boat’s Tomahawk load out from 12 to 40 missiles. At the same time, they will buy time for a new SSGN class yet to be designed, that will enter service within twenty years.

Whether the budget will exist for these new submersible aircraft carriers or not is another question all together.


Before the coming of the SSGN and the Advanced SEAL Delivery Systems (ASDS), SEALS deployed from boats like the USS Cavalla, a Sturgeon Class attack type submarine. There will be a blog later discussing swimmer delivery systems and their development over the past sixty years. For now, suffice that special operations forces have platform specific homes — and they’re technically also submarine aircraft carriers.

Photo: Author, in the Sea of Cortez with USS Cavalla (SSN 684)


  1. Am I the only one amused that the submarine named after our most dovish president came into port flying the Jolly Roger? Think the general public will ever know what mission they were on?

    • The Seawolf Class, including the USS Jimmy Carter, have the capacity of picking up “things” from the bottom of the ocean. In the case of the Jimmy Carter, it was reputed to be one of the new hypersonic Russian cruise missiles that they lost in their Pacific Test Range. I can’t say for sure, but that’s what it was. We learned a lot from Operation Ivy Bells and other activities undertaken by the USS Parche, among others. The US spends a lot of money on submarines and I think that we get bang for our buck.

    • The drones are single mission…of course. But there are a lot of them. And if they were all nuclear tipped, it would be quite a dust up.

  2. Viz. subs. Do you remember the RN submarine that sank the Belgrano? It sailed up the Thames flying the Jolly Roger and the Left went INSANE. The Sun helped with its famous headline “Gotcha!” I liked that.

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