Amphibious Aircraft for the US Navy and US Coast Guard; Part 2

A little over a year ago, I wrote about how both organizations need to be looking at an amphibious aircraft for longer range search and rescue (SAR) than the current MH-60 Seahawk fleet can do, as well as rapid medevac'ing injured personnel to treatment facilities. That need still exists today, and more use cases arise as time has gone on.

In the time since then, there’s been some interesting developments that further cement the idea that the US Navy and US Coast Guard need an amphibious aircraft. US and Chinese relations have gotten worse due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, trade disputes, increased freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in protest of China’s disputed claims in the South China Sea, and the longstanding support for the ROC’s hold on Formosa and the surrounding islands. The USMC has offloaded their heavy tanks in lieu of things like the Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS) based on the Joint Light Tactile Vehicle (JLTV), effectively a Humvee replacement turned into a drone carrying two anti-ship missiles, in order to shed weight and increase their lethality and reach to counter China in the South Pacific.

USMC’s NMESIS firing a NSM during a live fire exercise in 2021

Everything within the US’ Department of Defense right now points towards the belief that the South Pacific is the most pressing external security concern to the US and her allies’ interests. One only has to briefly look at a map of the South Pacific to see there’s vast stretches of water, with various tiny reefs and islands scattered about. Should a US bomber operating out of Guam find itself in a situation somewhere between Guam and Hainan Island (home to China’s South Sea Fleet headquartered at Yulin Naval Base), they’re almost certainly going to be forced into a water landing. Unless a US or allied ship happens to be in close proximity to them, the Navy’s MH-60 Seahawks simply lack the range to rescue those downed aviators.

Ironically enough, since my previous article on the need for an amphibious aircraft, a DOD organization has publicly stated they in fact want some amphibious aircraft. At the 2021 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC), USAF Colonel Ken Kuebler (USSOCOM’s program executive officer for fixed wing aircraft) stated that USSOCOM wanted an amphibious MC-130J that could operate from land and water alike.

Lockheed Martin advertisement for an amphibious C-130

The idea of an amphibious C-130 is not new, in fact Lockheed proposed such an aircraft in the 1960s, but did not receive enough interest to go further than that. USSOCOM’s YF2021 budget of $16.6B however, may be enough to get that ball rolling. While an amphibious C-130 would be overkill for strictly SAR and medevac'ing the wounded, the USMC’s introduction of NMESIS provides a new potential use case for it. A C-130J can haul two JLTVs over 2000 miles at a cruising speed of approximately 400mph. Before NMESIS, that wouldn’t mean much of anything, given the JTLV is just intended to replace the Humvee as a front line transport vehicle. With NMESIS however, those two JLTVs now carry 4 naval strike missiles (NSMs) that can pose a 100+ mile threat zone to any Chinese ships, something that can very rapidly contain the entire Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surface fleet.

Currently, the only way for the USMC to deploy NMESIS in an amphibious situation is to have a Wasp class LHD ($2B USD), America class LHA ($4B USD), or San Antonio class LPD ($2B) sail within just 100–200 miles of the shore, and have either a helicopter or landing ship bring them ashore. In the context of the South Pacific or South China Sea however, you’re now looking at bringing an entire US Navy amphibious ready group (ARG) into waters that could contain Chinese surface and subsurface threats, just to unload a handful of JLTVs.

An amphibious C-130J however could take off from Gaum, land in the water by one of the reefs that makes up the Spratly Islands, offload the NMESIS JLTVs ashore, fly back to Gaum, and repeat this process a dozen times before that ARG can even sail to within range to do the same, or potentially before PLAN forces can mobilize to counter the troop movement. This flexibility would allow for the rapid movement and dispersion of light forces in the region, creating anti-access & area denial (A2AD) umbrellas all across the region that the PLAN must tackle before it can even attempt to try and take the fight to the US Navy’s surface assets. In the past, light forces wouldn’t mean much of anything within the context of A2AD, but with the NMESIS being a 10,000lb truck with two NSMs, each capable of engaging and sinking the overwhelming majority of the PLAN’s surface warships, “light forces” doesn’t exactly have the same context it used to. NMESIS isn’t only system being developed by the USMC either. They’re also looking at using unmanned JLTVs as air defense platforms, which would truly allow for full-fledged A2AD umbrellas anywhere in the world in a matter of hours.

Between the need for for SAR, medevac’ing, deploying light forces, and resupplying remote forces, there’s no solution that’s as blatantly obvious for all of it than an amphibious aircraft. US Navy and the USCG would be wise to join up with USSOCOM in order to develop and procure an amphibious C-130J.

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