The US Air Force Special Operations Command is developing removable floats for its MC-130J Commando II transports. Bolt the floats together and the normally land-based MC-130 becomes a seaplane capable of taking off and landing in any reasonably smooth body of water.
The idea is to free SOCOM’s transports from concrete runways and dirt airstrips so that they can drop off and retrieve commandos in places that lack land. He is. Rugged coasts. River deltas.
But there is another, arguably less exciting, app that, in a major war, could actually be far more important than any dramatic commando raid. The C-130s with MAC floats – which stands for “MC-130J Commando II Amphibious Capability” – could supply island bases.
The US military once operated a large number of seaplanes. During World War II, the US Navy’s Catalina seaplanes patrolled to spot enemy ships, chased submarines, and rescued downed airmen.
Seaplanes fell out of favor in the navy after the war. America’s vast network of major air bases – and the advent of the helicopter – seemed to make fixed-wing amphibians obsolete.
But the environment is changing. In the part of the world where the United States might be most likely to wage a major war – the Western Pacific – the Pentagon in fact lack plinths.
At the same time, an emerging doctrine of war with China calls on the United States Marine Corps – with support from the Navy and the US Air Force – to occupy small island outposts within missile range. Chinese.
Marines at those outposts would launch drones to track Chinese ships – and launch missiles at them – while also supplying US planes heading for targets closer to the Chinese mainland.
Some of the outposts could be large enough to include a short airstrip which, in addition to supporting fuel-hungry F-35s and V-22s, could accommodate KC-130 Marines carrying troops and supplies.
Smaller outposts could not have an airstrip. Helicopters and tiltrotors can get in and out of almost any base, but they typically lack range and payload compared to fixed-wing aircraft.
This is where seaplanes could come in. Equip the Marine KC-130s with floats and they could resupply any outposts they could safely reach.
AFSOC Chief Technology Officer Lt. Col. Josh Trantham hinted at the possibility. “We believe that MAC can be used by our sister, allied and partner services on various C-130 platforms,” he said.
If anything, AFSOC is behind the curve. The Japanese Navy flies a small number of US-2 seaplanes for rescues and emergency supply runs. And Chinese industry is developing a new seaplane, the AG600, which Beijing could deploy to resupply its own island outposts.
AFSOC plans to fly a C-130 equipped with floats for the first time within 17 months. If the design will work, well, we’ll see. But the usefulness is obvious.