6 June 2030 0220 hours
“Five, four, three, two, one!”
The pilot felt the hull touch the water and adjusted the throttle as her aircraft headed toward the pitch-black cove. She had been a Marine aviator for eight years, but every time she landed, it still felt as if her seaplane were made of burlap and balsa wood, not a high-tech carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer. The copilot spotted the infrared strobe through night-vision goggles and pointed out the Zodiac heading for the aircraft. Within five minutes, the squad of Marines was on board and scuttling their raft. Thirty-six hours prior, the team successfully launched stealthy antiship missiles at a People’s Liberation Army Navy Jiangdao-class corvette operating 500 nautical miles to the northwest.
The copilot sent an encrypted text confirming the pickup via burst transmission. In the passenger compartment, a flight surgeon waited to address the few medical issues that had surpassed the squad’s corpsman’s capabilities in the two months the Marines had been alone on the atoll.
The pilot picked a random course while awaiting a return text with grids for the linkup point with a tender. There they would take on aviation fuel and off-load any injured Marines. But the pilot was not focused on follow-on operations; a second crew asleep in the back of her aircraft would be responsible after the rendezvous. She hoped the flying boat and her crew would be given some downtime to hide from Chinese surveillance as the war in the Pacific continued.
The Commandant’s Planning Guidance reorients the Marine Corps toward fighting a peer competitor and prioritizes countering “Chinese malign activities in the East and South China Seas.”1 The Commandant, General David H. Berger, now has begun to reconsider the service’s force design.2 The planning guidance recognizes that, after two decades of low-intensity conflict, the Marine Corps is poorly prepared to counter a great power. General Berger, therefore, has directed the service to rethink its doctrine, rebalance capabilities, and replace legacy systems with new tools to provide a credible U.S. deterrent in the Pacific.
The Navy and Marine Corps are preparing to meet these challenges with various new concepts of operations and doctrine: distributed maritime operations, littoral operations in a contested environment, and expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO).3 In EABO, Marines will deploy “low-cost capabilities in austere, temporary locations forward,” allowing them to use weapons, networks, and sensors in an antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) environment.4 A key issue will be how to move and supply units spread thinly across great distances and widely spaced islands and maritime terrain. The Marine Corps needs large numbers of low-signature vessels to avoid detection inside the adversary’s A2/AD weapons engagement zone. Seaplanes could be a good option.
EABO envisions small units deployed forward to various islands for limited periods while avoiding creation of a discoverable footprint.5 They will frequently need to “shoot and scoot”—engage the enemy, then withdraw. To minimize signatures, these units will travel light, with limited logistics support or forward stockpiles. To succeed, expeditionary Marine Corps units will need fast, reliable, and long-range tools for resupply, casualty evacuation, and unit movement to, across, and from various reefs, islands, and atolls. Use of seaplanes or amphibious aircraft could obviate the need for runways, which may not exist or which could be rendered unusable by enemy strikes.
In the Air, on Land and Sea
Globally, upward of 4,500 commercial amphibious aircraft are in use.6 In the past decade, German aviation company Dornier Seawings has rolled out an all-new model, the Seastar seaplane.7 In 2014, Dornier announced a joint partnership with two Chinese state-owned enterprises to produce the Seastar in both Germany and China.8 This fiberglass-hull aircraft can carry 12 passengers and sells for about $7 million.9 In the United States, the Catalina Aircraft Trust is attempting to develop a carbon-fiber-composite/turboprop-powered version of the famous PBY Catalina.10
A modern naval amphibian could be a logistical enabler across the Pacific. Designs should emphasize use of communication and navigational equipment with minimal electromagnetic spectrum signatures. Speed is not a priority, but range is. Since the need for armament and armor is minimal, the airframes can be made from lightweight materials. Carbon-in-polymer-matrix composites (a type of fiber-reinforced plastic) are used in the construction of unmanned aerial vehicles, lightweight jets, and military helicopters not only because of high strength-to-weight ratios, but also because they act “as an absorber of radar waves” and have “lower radar cross-sections than corresponding metallic structures.”11
Keeping designs uncomplicated would simplify maintenance, allow for some field-expedient repairs, and reduce logistics tails. Higher mission readiness and lower maintenance costs would make them more effective in a combat environment. The use of hybrid-electric engines, or an all-electric system such as the ones now being fielded by Harbour Air and Magnix, could also provide logistical efficiencies if made rugged enough for military maritime specifications.12
Naval Surface Warfare Center–Carderock studied the potential of amphibious aircraft in support of the mid-2000s naval concept of sea-base operations.13 Navy engineers concluded that amphibians similar in capacity to C-130J cargo aircraft could be “economically justified under certain conditions.”14 Carderock researchers noted that the Navy had not designed a new seaplane in decades, but they suggested there could be logistic advantages (compared with land-based aircraft) to deploying them forward.15
To support seaplanes, the Navy and Marine Corps could preposition materials to allow establishment of forward arming and refueling points (FARPs). These could be placed on select islands or even potentially use new technologies to anchor fuel blivets or underwater ammunition caches that could be raised remotely.16 Historically, Navy seaplanes had dedicated seaplane tenders—repair vessels known as aviation support ships.17 In today’s threat environment, similar dedicated tenders could be too easily identified and targeted. However, inexpensive tenders with small crews—or even autonomous craft—might be able to meet these requirements. Leased commercial ships might also serve as low-signature support vessels for amphibious aircraft. New underwater drones and specialized submersibles could potentially provide fuel, ammunition, and other supplies to the aircraft as well. The Marine Corps should consider using Naval Special Warfare units and other U.S. government agencies to arrange commercial facilities, equipment, and civilian ships to provide support to seaplanes while reducing a readily discoverable U.S. footprint.
Tactics would need to be developed for communication among crews; management and employment of amphibian aircraft and support; and where to hide, stage, and rest crews. In the 1950s, the Navy developed doctrine for a seaplane strike force. Though this force never moved out of the experimental stage, the knowledge gained then could be combed for insights today.18
And it was not just the U.S. Navy that had such ideas. In March 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched two Kawanishi H8K Emily flying boats from French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (where they had been supported by submarine tenders) to launch a second attack on Pearl Harbor. Because of bad weather, the bombs they dropped failed to strike any targets.19
The Marine Corps must evolve to meet the Commandant’s Planning Guidance goals. Overcoming the tyranny of distance in a low-cost, sustainable manner will be key to successfully executing EABO. Reinventing and updating an important capability from 20th-century naval history could be an important way to support it.
1. Gen David H. Berger, USMC, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 17 July 2019, 3.
2. Berger, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, 2.
3. Berger, 11.
4. Department of the Navy, “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment,” www.candp.marines.mil/Concepts/Subordinate-Operating-Concepts/Littoral-Operations-in-a-Contested-Environment/; Nick Oltman, “EABO Needs a New Naval Command and Control Structure,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 5 (May 2019).
5. Department of the Navy, Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment.
6. J. Mac McClellan, “The Flying Boat Is Back,” Flying, 15 January 2010, flyingmag.com.
7. McClellan, “The Flying Boat Is Back.”
8. Mark Huber, “First New Dornier Seastar Rolls Out,” AIN Online, 13 September 2017, www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/business-aviation/2017-09-13/first-new-dornier-seastar-rolls-out.
9. McClellan, “The Flying Boat is Back”; Huber, “First New Dornier Seastar Rolls Out.”
10. Catalina Aircraft Trust, “28-7ACF ‘Catalina II’ Next Generation Amphibious Aircraft (NGAA),” catalinaaircrafttrust.com/ngaa-catalina-ii.
11. Sue Panteny, “Lighter, Stronger,” Materials World 15, no. 3 (March 2007): 30; M. R. Edwards, “Materials for Military Helicopters,” Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers—Journal of Aerospace Engineering, Part G 216, no. 2 (2002): 85.
12. Diane Selkirk, “The Elon Musk of Airplanes: A British Columbian Bush Pilot Is Well on His Way to Owning the First All-Electric Airplane Fleet—And He’s Doing It with Decades-Old Planes,” Men’s Journal (May/June 2020): 36–37; and Kent German, “This Electric Aircraft Could Jump-Start the Future of Flight: A Seattle Company Sends the Largest Zero-Emissions Airplane Yet on Its First Flight,” C.net, 26 May 2020, www.cnet.com/news/this-electric-aircraft-could-jump-start-the-future-of-flight/.
13. Naval Surface Warfare Center: Carderock Division, Technical Report—Seaplane Economics: A Quantitative Cost Comparison of Seaplanes and Land Planes for Sea Base Operations, NSWCCD-CISD-2007/007 (August 2007).
14. Naval Surface Warfare Center, Technical Report, 26.
15. Naval Surface Warfare Center, 26.
16. William F. Trimble, Attack from the Sea: A History of the U.S. Navy’s Seaplane Strike Force (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 95. Planning for the SSF included studying use of submerged rubber fuel caches marked with buoys.
17. Owen Gault, “The Fleet within a Fleet: Aviation Support Ships in the Cold War Navy,” Sea Classics 35, no. 2 (February 2002): 14–19.
18. Trimble, Attack from the Sea, 50–51, 103–4.
19. Christopher J. Terry, “Review of Attack from the Sea: A History of the U.S. Navy’s Seaplane Striking Force by William F. Trimble,” International Journal of Maritime History 17, no. 2 (December 2005): 478.