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US Floatplane Efforts Continue With China In Mind

US Floatplane Efforts Continue With China In Mind

 INDUSTRY 360° | 1 APRIL 2022

In an increasingly uncertain world, guessing where military conflict will occur next is a major challenge for planners. Armed forces are increasingly using airborne assets, but there is one major limitation as most need runways.

China is pushing its borders further and further outwards by creating and garrisoning artificial island outposts in the South China Sea. The US lacks bases there so it has identified the need for runway-independent aircraft such as helicopters and tiltrotors, but these are small platforms that lack range and payload — so seaplanes are once again receiving attention.

These fall into two categories: flying boats and floatplanes. The former have hulls that displace the water and have to be purpose-designed, whereas conventional aircraft are relatively easily convertible into amphibious platforms by adding floats.
This is exactly what the USAF Strategic Operations Command (AFSOC) is planning with its MC-130J Commando II Amphibious Capability (MAC), which Shephard understands is less than two years away from its first flight.

The floats will be detachable, so in theory any C-130 could be equipped with them, but there will be issues around pilot training and corrosion. Touching down on a previously unused stretch of water requires specialist observations and seawater is highly corrosive to metal airframes, so proofing, washing and inspection will be needed.

The programme is being run in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory's Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation directorate.

Lt Col Josh Trantham, deputy division chief of AFSOC Science, Systems, Technology, & Innovation, said in September 2021 that the floatplane capability ‘allows the Air Force to increase placement and access for infiltration, exfiltration, and personnel recovery, as well as providing enhanced logistical capabilities for future competition and conflict’.

AFSOC also believes that the MAC could be used by other US services, allies and partner air forces aboard various C-130 platforms.

The MAC project may partly be a response to the development of the AG600 ‘Water Dragon’ amphibious aircraft in China by AVIC. This aircraft could be used by the Chinese military supply and defend islands to the south of the mainland. The AG600 is a flying boat and is comparable with the C-130 as a four-engined turboprop. Flying boats can tolerate rougher seas than floatplanes as they are more stable on the water with lower centres of gravity.

Questions that AFSOC needs to resolve include how quickly a C-130 can be put on the floats, the cost of doing so, performance penalties (increased drag and weight) and where this would take place.

Refuelling locations could also be an issue as aviation fuel is not generally available at lake and sea ports.

By: Ian Parker
Article | Shephard Media