Years ago, before I joined the Royal Australian Air Force, I volunteered at the RAAF Association Aviation Heritage Museum in Bull Creek, Perth (I highly recommend you visit, given the chance). While working front of house selling tickets and gifts to customers, I was taken under the wing of many older veterans with whom I became good friends, whilst also being under the wing – literally – of a Consolidated PBY Catalina, undoubtedly the most famous and celebrated seaplane of all time.
The Catalina served with great distinction during the Second World War, performing a range of tasks including reconnaissance, search-and-rescue (SAR) and mine-laying. Their strategic effect was well out of proportion to the number of airframes flying. All that time under the wing of a Catalina got me wondering; can the case be made for a modern-day seaplane capable of conducting strategic level effects?
The last seaplane in-service within the RAAF was…the Consolidated PBY Catalina, retiring in 1950 after a decade of service . This coincided with the worldwide decline in seaplane use and development. The rise of the aircraft carrier and naval aviation, long-range missiles as well as the advent of the jet engine combined with the massive increase of land-based airfields built during the war meant water-based aircraft had become largely redundant militarily. The USSR attempted to develop a jet-powered seaplane during the late 1980s, the Lun class ekranoplan, but never saw full-scale production.
Maritime reconnaissance and SAR is now conducted by the P-8A Poseidon at 11 Squadron (once employing Catalinas). Based in Adelaide, the aircraft regularly operates from northern Australia and South East Asia for operational tasking. In support of these operations, Cocos Island infrastructure is being upgraded to accommodate the Poseidon, due to be finished in 2023. Nevertheless, land-based aircraft remain victim to one of the central characteristics of air power theory – impermanence . There are two considerations to this worth exploring in the context of modern military seaplanes.
The first is impermanence.
Simply put, no RAAF aircraft can rescue anyone from the water. A P-8A can deliver life-saving equipment for the crew of a sunken vessel, loiter overhead for hours and relay information to surface vessels, but sooner or later it needs to return to a purpose-built, kilometres-long length of strengthened concrete to land. They can help, but they cannot affect the rescue.
The RAN’s Seahawk helicopters can, but they are tied to their frigates, and if said ship is outside the Seahawks maximum range, they are also of no use until getting closer – at the frigate’s maximum speed of 27kts. If there is a time-critical element to a situation, speed of response is a decisive factor. This may be either in the case of a downed aircraft, a sinking ship, or in the aftermath of a natural disaster, all where exposure to the elements is a killer.
A seaplane combines the mobility of a fixed-wing aircraft with the ability of a ship to operate on the water and remove people from danger.
The second consideration is the impermanence of infrastructure.
As noted in the Air and Space Centre’s article ‘Airbases: Now. Then. Always’, climate change is a significant risk to not just Australian airports, but those of our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. The 2011 and 2022 floods both necessitated RAAF platforms to operate out of RAAF Bases Amberley and Richmond, with extreme weather events and sea levels only predicted to increase by the year 2090.
With an increasing frequency of extreme weather events, and consistent flooding of two of six of our operational airbases likely to continue, there will continue to be massive strategic consequences. The RAAF and ADF will not be able to fulfil their obligations to support the nation and the region if critical infrastructure is out of action. It’s possible the aforementioned runway works at Cocos Island may be finished just in time to become redundant.
So, is there a place in the modern air force for a modern amphibious seaplane?
And where would we get one from?
The latter is relatively easy to answer, the former not so much.
A seaplane would functionally share a number of roles assigned to the P-8A – maritime reconnaissance and SAR for instance. A seaplane, however, has the benefit of being able to land on both runways and suitable stretches of water, whilst also carrying personnel and cargo.
Despite requiring significant financial commitment – at a reported unit cost of USD$156 million, plus sustainment, competing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific make the investment worthy of consideration. Australian aid is going to be sent following a natural disaster, and if an Indo-Pacific islands’ runways are out of action, a seaplane may still be able to operate out of their naval facilities instead, even if degraded, allowing Australia to execute its foreign policy objectives.
So where to source one?
There are three military seaplane producers: Russia, China and Japan.
With Russia and China being unlikely contenders in the current political climate; Japan seems like a safe choice.
It is worth noting however that China has also recently developed a large seaplane, the AVIC AG600 Kunlong; it is currently undergoing flight testing. Japan has a long history of long-range seaplane production pre-dating the Second World War. Their current platform, the amphibious ShinMaywa US-2, first entered service with the Japanese Self Defence Force in 2009, with 6 currently flown by the 71st Kotukai.
Significantly, it is also being developed as a water-bomber, with the ability to carry 15 tonnes of water or repellant; a capability that Australia would heavily make use of during the summer fire season. With a reported maximum range of 4700km, a mission radius of 1900km, and the ability to operate on sea or land, (by operating out of Cocos Islands, Guam, Nauru or French Polynesia), it could cover much of the Indo-Pacific in its SAR or reconnaissance capacity.
There is again a geopolitical factor; a purchase of this significance would further strengthen Australian-Japanese ties on the back of the signing of the Reciprocal Access Agreement in January, as well as Japan’s attendance at Exercise Pitch Black for the first time this year.
In this context, the geopolitical messaging of the first ever RAAF procurement from an Asian nation can have a strategic effect worth more than the sum of its parts – that message being Australia and its allies are stronger than ever; an important message to send to the region in these tense times.
For all the current focus on potential conflict in the region and further abroad, one thing we know for sure is that sea levels are rising. As the underlying enablers of Air Force capability change, most notably availability of suitable dry land, it behoves us to adapt to that change.
Seaplanes are one option that provide RAAF with a capability that negates a critical disabler – impermanence – and allows RAAF to execute the ADFs mission of Shape, Deter, Respond where it might otherwise not be able to.
FLGOFF Joakim Siira is a logistics officer based at RAAF Williamtown, with a background in aviation and intermodal logistics. The views expressed are his alone and do not represent the opinion of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Department of Defence or the Australian government.
 Wilson, Stewart. 1994. Military Aircraft Of Australia. Weston Creek, ACT: Aerospace Publications.
The Air Power Manual. 2022. 7th ed. Canberra: Air and Space Power Centre, Royal Australian Air Force.
This article was published by Central Blue on October 23, 2022.