Naval Air: Must Have Seaplanes

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March 27, 2020: In Russia, the new military version of the Be-200 twin-engine seaplane recently (February) began flight testing. The Russian Navy had ordered six of these aircraft in 2013 but canceled the order in 2017 because Beriev, the manufacturer, was unable to get a jet engine that did not depend on some foreign components. The Be-200 uses the D-436 engines built in Ukraine. The Russian invasion in 2014 led to Ukraine halting exports of military equipment to Russia. Ukraine continued to sell Russian D-436s for commercial aircraft, including most Be-200s, but not for a military model. This Ukraine ban halted construction of several types of Russian warships that depended on gas turbine engines only available from Ukraine.

Aircraft engines were less of a problem because Russia was less dependent on Ukraine for aircraft engines. But the D-436 was not easily replaced by another Russian made engine. There was one likely candidate but that engine turned out to be a joint French-Russian effort. France allowed that engine to be used in the commercial version of the Be-200, which entered service in 2003 but would not allow it for Be-200s sold to the navy. When it became clear that getting a completely Russian engine was still several years away, the navy canceled the order. Apparently Beriev was told that the order would be reinstated when it had an engine that would not run afoul of the Ukraine ban. This was important for export customers and before 2014 several nations had expressed an interest in the military version of the Be-200.

The Be-200 is not a critical item for the Russian Navy. The Be-200s the navy ordered in 2013 only cost about $40 million each. Most seaplanes use turboprop engines and using jets means 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 have been sold 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 or lake in 12 seconds. 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.

The 43 ton aircraft can also carry seven tons of cargo or 72 passengers. Before 2013 Beriev offered 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 ASW (anti-submarine warfare). The Russian Navy never explained exactly what it wanted the Be-200 for and ASW is still a possibility. The current endurance of the Be-200 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 than a land-based one. Seaplanes 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 and Russia is an enthusiastic backer of these amphibious aircraft.

China also builds seaplanes and has produced the largest model currently in service, the AG600. Using four Ukrainian turbo-prop engines, the AG600 first flew in 2017 and is expected to enter service in 2021. The first customer is the Chinese Coast Guard, which ordered 17 of them. These are expected to show up in the South China Sea.

There are some foreign commercial customers interested but these nations are waiting to see how the AG600 does in regular service with the Chinese military. The AG600 is an attempt to capitalize on 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 per sortie. Water is obtained by flying over a lake or river and scooping up ten tons or so of water. Fire retardant chemicals added before the water is dropped on a fire.

For SAR it can land in calm waters 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, which borders the South China Sea. In that body of water, there are hundreds of islets, reefs and atolls 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 that are 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 and are still underway. This is typical of the Indian military procurement bureaucracy and India may eventually sign a purchase order. The growing tension with China has made India eager to improve ties with Japan, where China is also a threat. Technically an air-sea rescue aircraft, the Indian US-2s will be based in the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, which are in the Indian Ocean just west of Indonesia. This would enable India 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. The Japanese navy operates eight US-2s and has more on order.

 


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