The US ditched its last flying boats 38 years ago, but they could still help fill the gaps against China in the Pacific

Coast Guard HU-16E amphibious aircraft
US Coast Guard Grumman HU-16E Albatross amphibious aircraft at Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts.

  • It’s been nearly 40 years since the US got rid of its last seaplane, an aircraft long seen as outdated.
  • Growing attention on the Indo-Pacific and on China, which is developing its own seaplane, have revived discussion about the utility of amphibious aircraft.
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March marked the 38th anniversary of the retirement of the last US military seaplane. That aircraft, an HU-16E Albatross flown by the Coast Guard, left service 16 years after the Navy retired its last seaplane.

Seaplanes played a vital role in World War II and had been considered essential for naval supremacy. Despite grand plans for them early in the Cold War, seaplanes soon fell out of favor. But recent developments in China have led some to reconsider their utility.

In July 2020, China conducted the first successful sea trial of the AG600 seaplane, also known as the “Kunlong.”

The AG600 – the largest seaplane in the world – took off from an airport in Shandong Province, landed in the ocean off Qingdao, skied on the water for four minutes, then took off and returned safely.

The massive seaplane could put attention back on a type of aircraft the US military has long seen as antiquated.

Essential tools

Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina flying boat
A Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina in flight.

Seaplanes were once essential tools for the Navy. Long before aircraft carriers dominated the seas, vessels known as seaplane tenders were the only way to successfully conduct long-range naval-aviation operations.

They could pick up seaplanes with their large cranes and maintain the aircraft just like a conventional carrier would. The US Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley, a former collier ship, was converted into a seaplane tender when dedicated aircraft carriers became available in the late 1920s.

Eventually, seaplanes could be launched from the decks of warships, and long-range models could conduct important missions like anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, naval interdiction, and, most importantly, reconnaissance, since they were able to spot enemy fleets while they were still hundreds of miles from friendly forces.

Perhaps the most recognizable American seaplane is the PBY Catalina flying boat. Made by Consolidated Aircraft and adopted by the Navy in 1936, Catalinas helped locate the Japanese fleet at Midway, rescued thousands of downed airmen and stranded sailors, and sank more than 20 Axis submarines.

A British Catalina flown by an American pilot was even responsible for locating the German battleship Bismarck during the Royal Navy’s intense hunt for it in May 1941, seven months before the US entered the war.

Cold War plans

Navy seaplane tender Salisbury Sound Martin P5M-1 Marlin
US Navy seaplane tender USS Salisbury Sound with a Martin P5M-1 Marlin on a crane in San Diego Bay in 1957.

The role of seaplanes had diminished by the end of World War II.

Reduced Axis submarine fleets posed less of a threat, and numerous airbases on the multiple liberated islands in the Pacific allowed the US Navy to use long-range land-based aircraft carrying heavier payloads.

But the Navy didn’t intend to give up on seaplanes. In fact, in the early years of the Cold War, it wanted to create a Seaplane Strike Force with at least three models, in addition to other models already in service like the Martin P5M Marlin.

The Convair R3Y Tradewind, a transport flying boat adopted in 1956, had a maximum range of over 2,000 miles and was capable of carrying 100 troops or 24 tons of cargo. Its tanker version could refuel four Grumman F9F Cougars at once.

But the Tradewind had engine problems, and all 11 were retired in 1958.

Convair R3Y-2 Tradewind refueling Grumman F9F-8 Cougar
A US Navy Convair R3Y-2 Tradewind refueling four Grumman F9F-8 Cougar fighters in September 1956.

The F2Y Sea Dart, also made by Convair, was an ambitious attempt to create an amphibious delta-winged fighter jet.

Capable of speeds as fast as Mach 1 and armed with four 20 mm machine guns or multiple folding-fin rockets, the Sea Dart first flew in 1953 but was canceled in 1957 after a fatal accident.

Perhaps most impressive of all was the Martin P6M SeaMaster. Originally intended to carry nuclear weapons, it was a massive jet-powered seaplane capable of flying at subsonic speeds and traveling some 1,000 miles.

After the development of the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile, the SeaMaster was repurposed as a minelayer able to drop 30,000 pounds of ordnance and with an 800-mile range.

But ballistic-missile submarines and larger carriers made the Seaplane Strike Force less critical for the Navy, and the SeaMaster project was canceled in 1959.

The AG600

AVIC AG600 Kunlong floatplane
The AVIC AG600 Kunlong floatplane.

Although the US has retired its seaplanes, a number of countries still have them in their inventory.

Russia has started replacing its turboprop Beriev Be-12s with the jet-powered Be-200ES.

Japan, a nation with a long and proud seaplane tradition, operates one of the most advanced models in service, the ShinMaywa US-2, which held the record for world’s largest seaplane before the AG600.

The AG600 was designed by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the same outfit behind most of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s aircraft – including its stealth fighter.

AVIC AG600 Kunlong floatplane
The AVIC AG600 Kunlong floatplane.

Development of the AG600 began in 2009, with construction starting in 2014. It was unveiled in 2016, and its maiden flight was in 2017. China expects to finalize and deliver it by 2022.

The seaplane is 120 feet long and has a wingspan of 127 feet. It is reportedly capable of carrying 50 passengers and reaching a top speed of 310 mph and a range of 2,800 miles.

The AG600 will be a multi-purpose aircraft expected to conduct search-and-rescue and transportation operations. It is also able to carry up to 12 tons of water and disperse it over 4,000 square meters to fight forest fires.

The AG600 would be particularly useful in the South China Sea, operating between the numerous fortified islands China has built in recent years.

A seaplane revival

Japan amphibious aircraft seaplane Iwakuni
A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force US-1A amphibious aircraft prepares for a water landing in Iwakuni, Japan, January 8, 2013.

China’s development of the AG600, as well as the US’s greater focus on the Indo-Pacific region and its many islands, have brought the benefits of seaplanes back into the limelight.

Since they operate on water, seaplanes do not have to worry about the destruction of their airfields or bases.

Whereas landing craft rely on bigger logistical vessels to reach their destinations, seaplanes with large carrying capacities could disembark large numbers of troops and perhaps even light vehicles directly onto beachheads if rapid deployments or reinforcements on islands are necessary.

As aerial refuelers, seaplanes could extend the range of carrier aircraft, freeing up valuable space and pilots aboard US aircraft carriers. Seaplanes’ ability to be refueled by ships or submarines at sea could also extend their own ranges.

There are of course trade-offs. Seaplanes have historically been outperformed by land and carrier-based aircraft, which are faster and more maneuverable. Seaplanes also aren’t likely to last long against enemy aircraft. Moreover, to get the most out of a seaplane force, the Navy would likely need seaplane tenders, of which it has none.

But with greater attention on the challenges of operating in the Indo-Pacific region, and with China’s renewed interest in the aircraft, there’s reason to give the practical and tactical applications of seaplanes more study.

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The Navy doesn’t need another aircraft carrier right now, admiral nominated to lead Pacific operations says

aircraft carrier
Sailors watch the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis sail alongside the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the Pacific Ocean, May, 5 2015.

  • The 11 aircraft carriers in Navy has are what the military needs, Adm. John Aquilino said Tuesday.
  • Aquilino said the size of that force “is correct” to meet current needs “unless additional challenges show themselves.”
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The US has the number of aircraft carriers it needs to meet requirements across the globe – unless “additional challenges show themselves,” the four-star admiral nominated to oversee military operations in the Asia-Pacific region said.

The 11 aircraft carriers in the military’s arsenal – as currently required by law – are what the force needs, Adm. John Aquilino said during a Tuesday Senate confirmation hearing. Aquilino has been nominated to lead U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Aquilino was asked by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., whether the Navy has enough carriers to deter China in the Pacific while still operating in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“We’ve complied to the law [with] 11, but is that enough though?” Wicker asked Aquilino. “Just tell us – we need to know. We can change the law of the land if we get enough votes.”

Aquilino said carrier strike groups are a tremendous form of deterrence, but demurred on saying the Navy needed more.

“I think currently that the size of that force is correct unless additional challenges show themselves,” he said.

aircraft carrier
USS Carl Vinson leads US and Indian navy ships during exercise Malabar 2012.

Navy aircraft carriers are in high demand across the globe, but the service faced criticism from Congress when leaders in 2019 proposed retiring one early to invest in new technologies. USNI News reported this month that Pentagon leaders are again considering a reduced carrier force structure as part of its upcoming 2022 budget submission to Congress.

Resistance from lawmakers is likely. Wicker released a statement Monday calling for a bigger Navy in response to growing presence at sea from Russia and China. He urged the Biden administration to embrace a military plan released under President Donald Trump to increase the fleet to 405 manned Navy ships by 2051.

“If we do not ramp up shipbuilding dramatically, it will be more and more difficult to prevent a future conflict with our adversaries,” Wicker wrote.

Bryan McGrath, a retired surface officer and naval consultant, said while he has great respect for Aquilino, he believes the admiral is wrong to think 11 carriers are enough for the Navy to carry out its global requirements. McGrath cited ongoing trouble with carrier maintenance, readiness woes, and the need for extended or double-pump deployments that have weighed on the force.

The 11-carrier requirement was made law at about the same time as the Navy’s 2007 maritime strategy, which enshrined a “two-hub” presence in the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean.

Eleven is the minimum necessary carrier count to support the two hubs with continuous coverage, McGrath added, given maintenance and transit-time requirements.

Whenever two carriers are needed in one of those hubs though – which happened last year in response to Iranian threats and again just last month in the South China Sea – “the brittle relationship between that number of carriers and that number of hubs comes into stark relief,” he added.

aircraft carriers
USS Theodore Roosevelt, bottom, USS Ronald Reagan, middle, and USS Nimitz in the Pacific Ocean, November 12, 2017.

And today, the US is also now dealing with a resurgence from Russia in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, McGrath said.

“The nation cannot ignore Europe as a theater for carrier operations, and in fact, it hasn’t,” he said. “And so for several years, we’ve taken the minimum number of carriers necessary to fill two hubs continuously and attempted to time share in a third, even as we desired multiple carriers in one or more of those hubs in this period.”

McGrath made the case in 2015 for a 16-carrier Navy. That many carriers could support continuous coverage of “three hubs indefinitely,” he wrote, “with little or no risk of gap.” He said he stands by that argument, adding, “if anything, today’s security environment is more pressing than when I wrote these words in 2015.”

Last week, Adm. Phil Davidson, who currently leads Indo-Pacific Command, told lawmakers there’s no substitute for having an aircraft carrier in the Pacific to counter China’s growing presence in the region.

The Navy is also still considering reactivating another numbered fleet in the Western Pacific, Davidson said. The Japan-based US Seventh Fleet currently oversees Navy operations all the way from India down to Antarctica and up past Japan to the Kuril Islands.

– Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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The US Air Force’s plan to dodge Chinese missiles means new jobs for airmen who keep fighters flying

Air Force Cope North Guam
An eight-plane formation over Guam during exercise Cope North 21, February 9, 2021.

The US Air Force’s efforts to disperse its forces have gained new urgency as the Chinese military grows in size and reach, but operating from far-flung, often austere airfields creates new logistical challenges. To overcome them, the service is asking its airmen take on new tasks.

Expeditionary operations are getting special attention in the Pacific, where important facilities, like Anderson Air Force Base on Guam, are within range of Chinese missiles.

The Air Force has spent more time refining a concept known as Agile Combat Employment, which pairs bases like Anderson, or hubs, with remote airfields, called spokes. To support operations at those spokes, the service is looking to “multi-capable airmen,” who have been trained do tasks outside their assigned specialties.

Both concepts were on display during Cope North 21, an exercise conducted with Japanese and Australian forces in the Pacific between February 3 and February 19.

“Every year, we try to expand the envelope of what we can do,” Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of US Pacific Air Forces, said of Cope North during the Air Force Association air-warfare symposium last week.

Air Force F-35 C-130J Guam
Two F-35s wait to refuel from a C-130J at Northwest Field in Guam as part of Agile Combat Employment multi-capable airmen training during Cope North 21, February 16, 2021.

During the exercise, F-35s from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska flew to Guam. During the drills, the F-35s landed in the island nation of Palau, refueled without shutting down their engines, and, after less than an hour, took off again to continue training, Wilsbach said.

That demonstrated “the ability to get back and forth to Palau, which is a very long distance, and the ability to refuel on the ground,” which requires multi-capable airmen, Wilsbach added.

“One of the things that we were doing at Cope North was expanding this notion of multi-capable airman,” Wilsbach said. “We train airman in generally one specific area, like, for example, a security forces member … but what if a security forces member could also refuel an aircraft or reload an aircraft or work on communications gear at those outstations?”

In addition to airfields on Palau, US and Japanese airmen conducted training at the rugged Northwest Field on Guam.

Pacific Air Forces is implementing a syllabus to teach airmen skills from outside their assigned career fields, Wilsbach said. “This gets us more capability with fewer people, which reduces the logistics requirements at some of those spoke locations.”

Able to pick up a weapon

Air Force C-130J Palau
A US Air Force C-130J lands at Angaur in Palau during Cope North 21, February 11, 2021.

Air Force personnel around the world, including in the US and Europe, are practicing ACE and related concepts, and Pacific Air Forces includes an ACE component in most exercises, Wilsbach has said.

In the days after Cope North, the 18th Wing, the host unit at Kadena Air Force Base in Japan, held its first multi-capable airman training course.

“Prior to this – or even historically – some airmen made it through their whole career without really touching an aircraft,” Senior Master Sgt. Frank Uecker, ACE superintendent for the 18th Wing, said in a release.

The service’s Advanced Maintenance and Munitions Operations School, based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, is also trying to spread lessons from airmen who have led development of ACE among the maintenance, munitions, and logistics experts it trains.

What the school “is really trying to codify is what is the supply chain, what’s the logistics look like for that, what capabilities do you need in a multi-capable airman to be able to minimize the footprint and stay agile,” 57th Wing commander Brig. Gen. Michael Drowley, who oversees the school, said last month.

Air Force airman fuel F-16 Guam
A US Air Force airman pulls fuel lines to an F-16 during an agile combat employment scenario at Northwest Field during exercise Cope North 21, February 15, 2021.

“Right now, they’re really in the tabletop exercise, red-teaming aspect of looking at some of those operations and what the requirements would be and then what do they need to train their instructors to be able to do, so that way [instructors] can go back out to the units and now provide that training,” Drowley added.

The new tasks for airmen aren’t limited to the maintenance and logistical support. They may also have to help defend the base from missiles, enemy aircraft, and other incoming threats.

“We’re looking at acquiring some additional light capability to go out primarily to the spokes, because our hubs are pretty well protected with things like” Patriot missiles and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense weapon system, Wilsbach said.

“Who’s at the base and what they can do to help you defend the base goes back to that multi-capable airman,” Wilsbach added. “There will be expectations that they will be able to add to the defense of the base, regardless of whether they’re a security forces member or not. They’ve got to be able to pick up a weapon that can help defend that location until you leave or until such time as the threat has been abated.”

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