Appreciate China’s Big New Seaplane
A good deal of polite Western snickering met the announcement that China was on the verge of building large seaplanes–an “old technology”, scoffed the haters, whose “heyday came and went with the demise of the Pan Am Trans-Oceanic Clipper”.
But at least one Chinese aviation commentator dispensed a bit of wisdom for the doubters:
“The old saying ‘A thousand days the country nurtures its soldiers and all for one day’s battle’ applies to the development of amphibious aircraft. People say such equipment is becoming useless, but will eventually realize they are indispensable in maritime operations,”
The lesson is pretty clear–don’t dismiss old-looking tech.
And he’s right.
What looks like a useless piece of equipment to many of Washington’s vaunted hunters of “fifth and sixth-generation opponents”, is, in reality, the poor man’s MV-22. When fielded, these big amphibious planes will do a darn good job of disrupting the modern maritime battlefield.
Amphibious aircraft make a great, cost-effective means for littoral power projection.
Seaplanes also offer a great way to start building a corps of operators prepared to intuitively understand the speed and range advantages (and the attendant weaknesses!) of MV-22.
Seaplane users are not encumbered by prior rotary wing doctrine. And I’ll wager that seaplane drivers will grasp the utility of the MV-22 far faster than, say, your traditional rotary-wing expert (Observers have seen just how hard it has been in the United States to get the U.S. Marine Corps, the primary MV-22 customer, to really understand that the MV-22 isn’t a 1-for-1 replacement for a helicopter).
I mean, why do you think Japan “gets it”, and is moving so quickly to adopt the MV-22? I think that having been a long-time seaplane consumer (using Shinmaywa US-1a’s and US-2s to service and patrol dispersed island holdings) has a good bit to do with it. It is a better conceptual match. Yes, the MV-22 remains a pricey, high-tech and high-maintenance platform in comparison to the average seaplane, but it is arguably a better–and more utilizable–1-for-1 replacement for the seaplane’s niche mission.
There are also a few strategic components here that are worth considering.
First, the adoption of old-tech platforms is a neat means of exploiting a traditional U.S. habit of mirror-imaging and overlooking history. Call it a form of third-world stealth–employment of old-school tech almost guarantees the West’s vast intelligence-gathering and threat-detection infrastructure will dismiss the anomaly and pass on to more “exciting” targets.
Think about it. Before news of China’s South China Sea dredging projects broke, I discussed America’s failure to intuitively grasp the value of island holdings–by rejecting, out of hand, the potential for countries to engage in massive feats of environmental engineering, transforming reefs into airfields and harbors. I mean, who in the West, in this day and age of environmental regulation and environmental impact studies, even thinks of such stuff anymore?? And, well, guess what? American policymakers were taken by surprise when China set about terraforming their reef holdings.
What’s crazy is that the United States did exactly the same thing in the ’30s, ’40s…to the ’60s. America shouldn’t have forgotten. But Washington did.
That initial failure to appreciate history lost American policymakers an opportunity to get ahead of the South China Sea problem, shifting from crisis response into actively getting about seizing the initiative.
You see, American observers sure didn’t appreciate that Johnson Atoll, Tern Island, Midway, Wake and many other advanced Pacific Island airstrips built before World War II began as humble seaplane base dredging projects.
The spoil from those seaplane bases ended up making pretty serviceable airstrips (All that excess coral had to go somewhere, right?). Tern Island grew from a reef to an airstrip of just 30 acres, but it was a darn useful thirty acres.
America’s oversight contributed to what seems like another round of hasty, poorly planned reactions to Chinese provocations–I mean, is anybody really surprised this seaplane announcement came on the heels of a hasty request for a moratorium on development in the South China Sea?
If U.S. analysts had appreciated the historical trends in island fortification and development, America could have started managing the challenge. There were plenty of opportunities. When word started filtering out five years ago that China was developing large indigenous seaplanes….well, let’s just say that it was something of a mighty big “tell” and a sign of what was coming.
American South China Sea policymakers should have been alerted right then and there.
(Other tells just might also have been the recent surge in friendly Chinese investment in seaplane companies throughout the world–particularly after China’s tiny amphibious fleet suffered a “training” crash in 2013. My assumption is that China needed a little glimpse at how other folks were shaping their amphibian’s unique and tough-to-engineer landing surfaces.)
But that’s just water under the bridge.
And now, big seaplanes are getting ready to enter the Chinese arsenal–operating, certainly, from those nicely dredged channels around some of China’s seized South China Sea “sea features/future airfields”. So….get ready for more South China Sea fun, because these seaplanes offer some interesting disruptive potential.
Here’s what they offer:
Trial production of the TA-600 aircraft, formerly known as Dragon-600, will start in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, around the end of this year or the beginning of 2015, as the design has been completed, said Fu Junxu, a senior manager of China Aviation Industry General Aircraft, a subsidiary of Aviation Industry Corp of China, the country’s leading aircraft maker.
Fu said contractors will deliver large parts to the company before the end of this year, and the aircraft’s maiden flight is planned to take place in 2015.
The aircraft, with a maximum takeoff weight of 53.5 metric tons and a maximum range of more than 5,000 kilometers, will be larger than a Boeing 737 and could be used for a variety of operations such as passenger transport, marine environmental monitoring, firefighting and maritime search and rescue, Fu said.
Powered by four turbine engines, the TA-600 will be the world’s largest amphibious aircraft, surpassing Japan’s Shin Maywa US-2. It is designed to carry up to 50 people during search and rescue missions.
Don’t Dismiss Amphibious Planes:
To sum up, Western defense thinkers dismiss China’s new amphibians at their own peril.
Amphibious aircraft are not quaint throwbacks to a bygone era. They’re useful, and they’ll be a cheap Chinese surrogate for an MV-22-like capability in the Pacific. And their disruptive potential extends beyond the South China Sea, too. It’s high time to lock some folks in a room to consider how a rapidly-arriving force of seaplane-borne Chinese “Peacekeepers” might seriously complicate the too-oft-ignored geopolitical backwater that is the Pacific Basin. Lots of ethnic Chinese are out there, and anti-Chinese race riots are ugly, vicious and regular events throughout the Pacific.
Dismiss me as shrill, but I insist that there is a plan for these things. It’s just too darn convenient that design of China’s big amphibs got started in late 2009, just before China declared that the South China Sea was a “core interest”. These beefy amphibious transports may be old technology, but they have a whiff of being a well-thought-through requirement.
I sure hope I am wrong. But I fear this is just going to be another in a long line of otherwise unanticipated moves in China’s increasingly transparent effort to, essentially, assimilate Southeast Asia.