Do The US Navy And US Coast Guard Need An Amphibious Aircraft?

ShinMaywa US-2 of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (photo by: Toshiro Aoki)

To make a long story short; maybe right now, and absolutely in the near future. Amphibious aircraft could play an often forgotten, but still critical role, in aiding the US’ swing to the Pacific in an attempt to counter China.

Lets look at current events first. The US is currently in the process of swinging its military away from Europe and the Middle East, and positioning forces and capabilities in the Pacific, with China in mind. The Marine Corps are trying to find out how to deploy faster and smarter forces. The Navy is trying to find out how to increase the range of its fighter fleet to defend its surface ships. The Air Force is largely mimicking the Navy’s efforts. But in all of this, there’s a key issue that’s not being addressed.

With all aircraft, there’s a risk of something happening, and the plane having to go down over the water. Currently though, that’s being done with aircraft that largely operate within the range of existing SAR (search and rescue) aircraft like the MH-60 Seahawks. However, as the doctine continues to shift towards longer ranged aircraft operating further out, or simply refueling aircraft in air for increased ranges, they begin to put themselves out of the footprint of existing SAR platforms.

Enter Japan’s US-2. The US-2 is an amphibious plane designed specifically for SAR over water. It can take off and land on either land or water, which allows it to pick up downed pilots, should they hit the water. On top of that, it offers a 2500nmi (4700km) range. For context, that means one operating out of Guam could rescue any downed pilots up to the first island chain, a feat that would otherwise be completely impossible to do with the existing SAR aircraft (MH-60 has just 1/5th the range of the US-2). While this is an extremely limited use case, the ability to recover downed aviators can not be stressed enough. There’s not just the human factor, but also the cost (takes upwards of $10M to train and qualify a US military aviator), and morale as well.

On top of searching for downed aviators, the US-2 could also be utilized for searching for overboard sailors, assisting in humanitarian crises, and could also solve an issue to the US Navy’s pending USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy replacement problem. US Navy is looking at retiring one or both of the large hospital ships for smaller and less capable, but faster and in larger numbers, hospital ships based potentially off the Spearhead class.

Model of Austal’s Spearhead class ship modified into a hospital ship

These ships are more aptly suited for the kinds of distributed combat the US would likely see in the Pacific should it turn to that, but they also lack a lot of the capacity needed to properly address all kinds of patients. The US-2 however, can ferry 12 stretchers and assorted medical providers from the front lines to full hospitals in a way that otherwise can’t be done in a timely fashion.

The same concepts and applications could apply to the US Coast Guard as well, which regularly has to conduct rescue operations at sea.

Even just two or three squadrons of the US-2 (or comparable aircraft), would dramatically change the US’ capabilities with regards to the Pacific. While it wouldn’t directly help in the thick of combat, recovering aviators and getting the wounded to care is just as important to the fight.

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