Naval Air: The South China Sea Clipper

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August 16, 2016: In mid-2016 China announced that production of the first flyable prototype of its new AG600 seaplane had been completed and first flight would take place by the end of the year. So far there are orders for 17 AG600s, all from Chinese military or commercial customers. China is open to export customers but there has been no interest yet. The AG600 is an attempt to capitalize on nearly two decades of increased interest in seaplanes. At 53 tons the AG600 is larger than previous Chinese seaplanes like the 1980s era SH-5. Only seven of these 45 ton SH-5s were built; three prototypes and four production models meant for anti-submarine warfare. These seaplanes were not found to be all that useful in hunting subs and one of the SH-5s has since been converted to fight forest fires.

The AG600 is described as ideal for SAR (Sea Air Rescue) and fighting fires as well as marine patrol and moving cargo and people to remote locations. For fire-fighting it can scoop and deliver (on a fire) 370 tons of water  (with fire retardant chemicals added) per sortie (by flying over a lake or river and scooping up ten tons or so of water). For SAR it can land in the wander and take on as many as fifty passengers. Over 15 tons of cargo can be carried. Max speed is 560 kilometers an hour while minimum speed is 220 kilometers an hour. Max range is 4,500 kilometers and max altitude is 6,000 meters (20,000 feet). Minimum cruising altitude is 50 meters (163 feet).

China’s neighbors see a more sinister use. If AG600s were assigned to SAR work several could justifiably be stationed in South China right on the South China Sea. In that body of water there are hundreds of islets, reefs and atolls that that China claims, despite closer nations already having prior claims. The AG600s could be used to move supplies, weapons and military personnel to reinforce the growing number of small outposts China is building on platforms and artificial islands (formed by dredging sand from reefs or shallow water). Even without the AG600 China is following a strategy of “if our soldiers are on it the rock/reef/whatever is ours.” The older SH-5 could carry ten tons and the AG600 is believed capable of carrying nearly twice that. Another Chinese manufacturer is also developing twin engine seaplanes as well as a four engine model similar to the AG600.

There are some other Asian seaplane manufacturers, In 2014 India announced it was buying 15 US-2 seaplanes from Japan. Discussions over this sale had been going on since 2011. The growing tension with China has made India eager to increase ties with Japan, where China is also a threat. Technically air-sea rescue aircraft, the US-2s will be based in the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, which are in the Indian Ocean just west of Indonesia. This would enable the Indians to more easily patrol the western approaches to the Malacca Straits. Each year, half the world’s oil shipments, and a third of all commerce, pass through these straits. India fears that China may use its growing fleet to dominate the waters around the straits. The US-2s will make it easier to keep an eye on the Chinese.

The US-2 is a 43 ton, four engine amphibious maritime patrol aircraft that can carry twenty passengers, twelve stretchers or a ton of cargo. Japan uses them for search and rescue and carries a crew of eleven for these missions. Maritime patrol is similar and the aircraft has a sea-search radar as well as viewing ports for the crew. Cruising speed is 480 kilometers an hour and max endurance is about nine hours. The US-2s cost $110 million each and it would be up to India to arm them as the Japanese constitution forbids the export of weapons.

In 2013 the Russian Defense Ministry bought six Be-200 jet powered seaplanes, for about $40 million each. Most seaplanes use turboprop engines and using jets makes available a faster seaplane that can carry more. The Be-200 was developed in the 1990s, using a combination of Russian and Western technology. It first flew in 1998, and over a dozen are on order configured as fire-fighting aircraft. This was the main reason it was designed in the first place. This model can carry twelve tons of water (which it could scoop from a river in 12 seconds). The 43 ton aircraft can carry seven tons of cargo or 72 passengers. The aircraft was offered in an anti-submarine configuration but there were no takers. Built to fly low and slow (it cruises at 500 kilometers an hour), the Be-200 was ideal for anti-submarine warfare. It is unclear what the Russian military intends to do with it. Because most of Russia lacks roads and airfields, but has plenty of rivers and lakes, the Be-200 would greatly increase rapid access to many of these areas, especially those beyond the range of helicopters. Current endurance is about four hours per sortie. This can be increased by using some of the cargo capacity for additional fuel, to get endurance up to eight hours or more.

A seaplane is more expensive to build and maintain, but these aircraft can land and take off from the water and be stationed anywhere along the coast (or up a river). During World War II amphibious maritime reconnaissance aircraft often took advantage of this and were very useful in the Pacific. Currently only Russia, China, Japan and Canada build seaplanes like this and Russia is an enthusiastic backer of these amphibious aircraft.

 


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