Seaplanes! Enhancing Army Logistics in the Indo-Pacific by Reintroducing Seaplanes to the Navy and Air Force
By Justin Baumann
“One of the hidden ingredients behind the U.S. military’s enduring global superiority has long been its unequaled logistics system, which enables it to initiate and sustain complex joint military operations rapidly and effectively in any
corner of the world. Here, as in other elements of U.S. military superiority, continued innovation is vital.” - Thomas Ross, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Security Cooperation 2018[i]
In discussing the Army’s role in protecting interests against adversaries in the Indo-Pacific Command (INDO-PACOM) theater of operations, it may seem counterintuitive that an article discusses Navy and Air Force platforms, but the Army cannot operate against adversaries while conducting Multi-Domain Operations (MDOs) or Large-Scale Combat Operations (LSCOs) if it is not properly supplied.[ii] In the INDO-PACOM, this means the Army relies predominantly on current Navy and Air Force resupply platforms for sustaining operations and power projection across the vast Pacific Ocean.[iii]
In WWII, seaplanes were used extensively in the Pacific Theater of operations.[iv] Due to the water-centric geography of the region, these seaplanes became a formidable asset for U.S. military operations. As the United States Army transitions to Global Power Competition (GPC), innovation will be required to stay ahead of near peer-competitors like Russia and China, and to create a more robust and anti-fragile logistics network that can continue to operate across the spectrum of potential conflict types that may arise.[v]
While this idea has been discussed before, the emergence of Global Power Competition and KC-46 production issues make this a topic of high importance and new relevance for Army logistics in the INDO-PACOM theater and globally.[vi] This article will argue three things. First, that seaplane resupply and refueling aircraft are vital to U.S. Army interests in the INDO-PACOM theater of operations. Next, seaplane resupply aircraft can fill multiple joint service-branch capability gaps in future U.S. strategic contingency operations and greatly amplify U.S. Army operational capacity in the INDO-PACOM theater of operations. And finally, by supporting seaplane resupply aircraft budgets in Navy and Air Force acquisition and maintenance lines of effort, the U.S. Army can dramatically increase its strategic logistics power projection capabilities in the INDO-PACOM theater which require a focus on air and water-centric operations. For more in-depth information on seaplanes and their technical features, please see Use of Seaplanes and Integration within a Sea Base, a study by the Naval Surface Warfare Center, found in the footnotes. [vii]
Benefits to the Army
“Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do; Strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do.” - Chess Grandmaster Savielly Tartakower, 1950[viii]
The nature of conflict is chaotic. It would be almost impossible to predict when or where combat or humanitarian operations might take place in the future. Adding seaplanes to our inventory allows commanders and planners to have more flexibility in determining refueling points or Forward Supply Bases (FSBs) for continuous and sustained operations. The following points are just a few of the potential benefits this type of capability would provide to the Army in the INDO-PACOM.
Since military operations can change rapidly, ad-hoc refueling and resupply points provide flexibility which enables greater operational art on the battlefield. Seaplane refuelers provide the opportunity for Army logisticians to better enable ad-hoc refueling or resupply points in the midst of a conflict anywhere along the coastline. One example: If a ground runway located on an island in the pacific is destroyed by enemy fires, and the Army has the capability of seaplane cargo aircraft, a new coastal landing spot could be scouted and used to evacuate casualties or provide reinforcements via a new ad-hoc point of entry and exit for seaplanes. With current ground-based resupply and refueling aircraft, this immediate course of action is not available.[ix]
One of the Army’s unique capabilities that many other nations do not possess is that of mass entry by airborne infantry. From the 82nd Airborne Division, to special operations forces across all branches, these units are capable of exiting aircraft above the target in a vertical envelopment maneuver. But this capability is useless without the ability of aircraft to carry Little Groups of Paratroopers (LGOPs) and deliver them to the Landing Zone (LZ).[x] Because replacing airframes like C-130s or KC-46’s during a conflict is time consuming and expensive to include their pilots and accrued experience, building a fleet of seaplane refuelers and cargo ships now will provide positive second and third order effects in any future conflict by maintaining the required airframes necessary for airborne operations and resupply or refueling via coastal ports of entry. Additionally, it becomes easier to find platforms for aerial resupply operations using parachutes. This furthers the ability of Army logistics to service special operations forces who may be in non-permissible environments or contested areas. Having the rapid ability to frequently airdrop supplies in theater would be a force multiplier for these forces.
If the Marine Corps is overstretched by operations, and amphibious landings are not possible, airborne insertion as a form of island hopping could provide redundant operational courses of action for planners and commanders.[xi] Currently, even a division sized airborne operation would “cripple” the Air Force’s ability to provide aircraft for other operations and would significantly hinder strategic planning.[xii] In these Large Scale Combat Operations, there is a chance of much greater loss of logistics platforms when compared to the recent counter-insurgency wars in the Middle East. As losses mount, the difficulty in resupplying forces increases and commanders must accept additional risk in preventing catastrophic failures because of a lack of supplies or fuel. By having a large fleet of seaplane refuelers and cargo ships, the Army can rest assured that there are ready replacements for potential losses, allowing the Army to maintain more continuous ground operations despite disruptions to the logistics network.
Benefits to the Joint Force
“Given the increasing need for our Armed Forces to project themselves rapidly into a theater – perhaps without any military logistical infrastructure – we must ensure that we can move our troops and equipment across the oceans.” - Lieutenant General (Retired) William Pagonis, Director of American Logistics during the First Gulf War[xiii]
In February 2020 congressional testimony, Transportation Command’s Commanding General Stephen Lyons said that the most stressed capability is “aerial refueling.”[xiv] We can provide current and future combatant commanders with a greater set of refueling tools for any crises that emerge in their geographic areas by fielding seaplane resupply and refueler aircraft within our Navy and Air Force logistic air fleets. Additionally, because seaplane refuelers can take advantage of existing platforms and their time-tested capabilities, no new lengthy development timelines would be necessary.[xv]
Ideally these seaplanes would fulfill three roles: Fuel Tankers, Aerial Refuelers, and Cargo/Passenger Transport planes. One seaplane platform could potentially fulfill all three roles and take advantage of existing and proven technologies to extend the operational range of our forces in the INDO-PACOM.[xvi] Another benefit to the joint force is the ability of seaplane refuelers to resupply ships or submarines out at sea, increasing their combat capabilities if they are unable to return to port. Seaplanes can utilize existing Navy supply ports across the INDO-PACOM, necessitating only small adjustments to incorporate these types of aircraft into the fleet. This will assist the military in decentralizing their operations across such a large area.[xvii]
There are some risks inherent in this endeavor. By reallocating defense contracting dollars to funding seaplane refuelers, the military risks longer deployment times of critical logistics infrastructure platforms in addition to those already seen in the KC-46, as well as indeterminate costs related to fielding, maintenance, and docking infrastructure. While there are risks, previous experience, and success in using seaplanes during WWII in the Pacific, provide an optimistic outlook for their strategic applicability to increase operational capabilities during Global Power Competition.
Seaplane resupply and refueling aircraft are vital to U.S. Army interests in the INDO-PACOM theater of operations. The Abrams tank, an effective Army ground maneuver platform, cannot perform its mission without fuel.[xviii] The AH-64 Apache, an Army multi-role attack helicopter, cannot perform its mission without fuel. An infantry soldier cannot fight without food. Without food, fuel, and supplies, Army warfighting platforms simply cannot fight. Supplying our strategic air and ground units with these supplies is a paramount concern and a key component for commanders and planners in multi-domain operating environments.[xix]
Seaplane resupply aircraft can fill multiple service-branch capability gaps in future U.S. strategic contingency operations and greatly amplify U.S. Army operational capacity in the INDO-PACOM theater. Approximately 70% of the earth is covered in water and using seaplane refuelers and tanker aircraft can readily enhance our logistics network capabilities. Adding in the role of fuel and resupply requirements for the modern military, seaplane tankers and refuelers appear to provide a significant advantage over existing refueling systems. American seaplanes can provide a unique capability which helps fill a potential refueling supply chain bottleneck in our strategic crisis contingency planning processes as well as providing additional benefits to the joint force.[xx]
By supporting seaplane aircraft budgets in Navy and Air Force acquisition and maintenance lines of effort, the U.S. Army can dramatically increase its strategic logistics power projection capabilities in the INDO-PACOM theater for future operations which will require a focus on air and water-centric capabilities. The concepts explored in this article address multiple issues for logistics in multi-domain and large-scale combat operations and provides an innovative solution to address those potential issues. The current KC-46 setbacks present a unique opportunity to increase our power projection advantages while simultaneously enhancing our logistics capabilities for all service branches and Geographic Combatant Commanders by adding seaplanes to our operational air-logistics fleet.
[i] Ross, Thomas Warren. (2018) The Power of Partnership: Security Cooperation and Globally Integrated Logistics. Joint Forces Quarterly. Accessed 12 July 2021. p. 27 https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/jfq/jfq-88/jfq-88.pdf
[ii] Chief Warrant Officer 3 Lima, Michael K. DBA. (June 2021) Preparing Theater Ammunition Supply Points for Large-Scale Combat Operations. Military Review. Accessed 12 July 2021. p. 43 https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/military-review/Archives/English/MJ-21/MJ21-Whole-Book-1.pdf
[iii] Held, Bruce and Martin, Brad. (08 July 2021) An American Force Structure for the 21st Century. War on the Rocks. Accessed 12 July 2021. https://warontherocks.com/2021/07/an-american-force-structure-for-the-21st-century/
[iv] Alman, David. (01 July 2020) Bring Back the Seaplane. War on the Rocks. Accessed 12 July 2021. https://warontherocks.com/2020/07/bring-back-the-seaplane/
[v] Gao, Charlie. (30 June 2021) Russia's Airborne Fighting Forced [Sic] is Rivaled Only by the U.S. (Barely). The National Interest. Accessed 15 September 2021. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/reboot/russias-airborne-fighting-forced-rivaled-only-us-barely-188840
[vi] Insinna, Valerie. (17 June 2021) More cost overruns are coming for Boeing as the KC-46 program logs another two technical deficiencies. Defense News. Accessed 12 July 2021. https://www.defensenews.com/air/2021/06/17/more-cost-overruns-are-coming-down-the-line-for-boeing-as-the-kc-46-program-logs-another-two-technical-deficiencies/
[vii] Odedra, Jessaji, Hope, Geoff, and Kennell, Colen. (September 2004) Use of Seaplanes and Integration within a Sea Base. Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division. Accessed 16 September 2021. https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a476447.pdf
[viii] Tartakower, Savielly. (Date Unknown) Accessed 12 July 2021. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/8896094-tactics-is-knowing-what-to-do-when-there-is-something
[ix] Lieutenant Colonel Collins, Matthew L. (2019) Beyond Tanker Adaptive Basing: Alternative Options to Improve United States Indo-Pacific Command’s Air Refueling Readiness Posture and Extend Operational Reach. United States Naval War College. Accessed 12 July 2021. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/AD1104739.pdf
[x] Major Dixon, Jonathan P. (14 June 2019) Tactical airlift support to the land component in large scale combat operations. U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Accessed 12 July 2021. https://cgsc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p4013coll2/id/3747
[xi] Salecker, Gene Eric. (17 August 2010) Blossoming Silk Against the Rising Sun: U.S. and Japanese Paratroopers at War in the Pacific in World War II. Stackpole Books. ISBN: 0811706575.
[xii] Major Martinez, Christopher R. (24 May 2018) Operation Market Garden and modern airborne insertion: the strategic cost of airborne operations. U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Accessed 16 September 2021. p. 2 https://cgsc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p4013coll3/id/3753
[xiii] Lieutenant General (Retired) Pagonis, William G. (1992) Moving Mountains: Lessons in Leadership and Logistics from the Gulf War. Harvard Business School Press. p. 203 ISBN: 0875843603.
[xiv] General Lyons, Stephen R. as quoted by Senator Dan Sullivan, Alaska (25 February 2020) Officials Testify at Senate Hearing on FY 2021 Defense Budget. Bridget Bosch YouTube Channel. Accessed 15 September 2021. Timestamp: 1:23:43. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osrU_4yiLRA
[xv] Holmes, James. (28 April 2021) Why the U.S. Shouldn't Rely on Fancy Equipment to Beat China in a War. The National Interest. Accessed 12 July 2021. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/reboot/why-us-shouldnt-rely-fancy-equipment-beat-china-war-183832
[xvi] Alman, David. (May 2021) Extend Air Wing Range with Seaplane Tankers. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. Accessed 12 July 2021. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2021/may/extend-air-wing-range-seaplane-tankers
[xvii] Banks, Jim and Moulton, Seth. (23 September 2020) Future of Defense Task Force Report 2020. House Armed Services Committee. Accessed 12 July 2021. p. 73 https://armedservices.house.gov/_cache/files/2/6/26129500-d208-47ba-a9f7-25a8f82828b0/6D5C75605DE8DDF0013712923B4388D7.future-of-defense-task-force-report.pdf
“For example, high-end platforms like the F-35 are of little value if the military cannot protect and supply the bases from which they need to operate. The Pentagon has prioritized the purchase of these types of high-end systems without sufficiently balancing the need to procure associated enabling capabilities such as defending forward bases, ensuring supply chain logistics for fuel and munitions, and securing networking and communications.” p. 75
[xviii] Thompson, Loren. (18 June 2021) Army Signals the Abrams Tank Is Here to Stay. Forbes Magazine. Accessed 12 July 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenthompson/2021/06/18/army-signals-the-abrams-tank-is-here-to-stay/?sh=cdfe3957887f
[xix] Estevez, Alan; Marchese, Kelly; Routh, Adam; Mariani, Joe. (09 June 2021) The Changing Character of Supply: Rethinking Logistics in An Era of Systems Warfare. Modern War Institute at West Point. Accessed 12 July 2021. https://mwi.usma.edu/the-changing-character-of-supply-rethinking-logistics-in-an-era-of-systems-warfare/
[xx] Mainardi, Benjamin. (07 July 2021) Remembering the Geography in Geopolitics and Indo-Pacific Discourse. The Strategy Bridge. Accessed 12 July 2021. https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2021/7/7/remembering-the-geography-in-geopolitics-and-indo-pacific-discourse