Imperatives of Amphibious Aircraft
Cmde Sujeet Samaddar reviews
In what could have been another attempt to unleash havoc on Indian shores along similar lines as the 26/11 terror strikes, the Indian Coast Guard intercepted a suspicious Pakistani fishing boat, laden with explosives, in the Arabian Sea in the early hours of 1 January 2015. Detected almost 24 hours earlier by a Coast Guard Dornier aircraft, it took a nearby patrol vessel some 14-16 hours to intercept the boat. Despite warning shots the boat did not surrender and apparently blew itself up with the crew and any hard evidence of terrorist complicity in conducting this operation was lost. An amphibious aircraft would have provided the capability of rapid and simultaneous surveillance and arrest, leaving no time for scuttling or obtaining directions from ‘handlers.’ An arrest effected by an amphibious aircraft would have been a huge deterrent to any future such operations.
During the evacuation of Indians stranded in Yemen an expensive military force of three warships, two Indian Air Force C- 17 aircraft and two passenger ships were utilised, in addition to Air India airliners. The C- 17s and the Air India flights operated from Djibouti while the ships ferried evacuees from Sanaa. A total of about 4,000 Indian were evacuated over a period of a month at substantial cost and risk. With a transit time direct to the Yemen coast of about 4 hours, amphibian aircraft operating from Mumbai would have achieved the evacuation in perhaps 100-120 sorties conducted over a period of 5-7 days by landing directly in Yemeni coastal waters. The cost savings and the operational flexibility that amphibian aircraft provide by way of access, airspace, sea landing capability and immigration control are apparent.
On 14 August 2013, INS Sindhurakshak was lost to a fire on board. Whilst alongside several rescue systems are in place the Indian Navy would not have been able to organise a rescue effort had the incident occurred at sea. Only an amphibious aircraft could have been dispatched with divers, welding sets and experts to save the submarine and more importantly, its crew. A few decades ago, the world was witness to the tragedy of 7 April 1989, wherein forty-two submariners of a Soviet nuclear-powered submarine died in the Barents Sea, while rescue aircraft circled powerlessly overhead watched freezing submariners perish literally before their eyes since the rescue ships had not yet reached the location. Just one capable amphibious aircraft would have averted the tragedy. Most importantly, the human tragedy of the loss of the highly trained and specialised submariners far exceeded the cost of the submarine. This is a lesson of history that India can learn, and amphibious access is a contingent capability that India must possess.
MV Pavit, a derelict, washed up undetected on a Mumbai beach in the early hours of 31 July 2011. About six weeks earlier, another merchant vessel, MV Wisdom, broke tow and ended up on Juhu beach after drifting dangerously close to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge. Had the ship collided with the Sea Link, there would have been a massive disaster. Both ships had pierced the coastal surveillance envelope undetected. Such derelicts are not only hazardous upon beaching but also are a menace to navigational safety at sea. Within a fortnight, MV Rak, sailing from Indonesia
to Dahej in Gujarat with 60,000 tonnes of coal, sank barely 20 nautical miles off the Mumbai coast after developing two holes in its hull. Aircraft, helicopters and ships were unequal to the task of salvaging it. Advanced technology amphibious aircraft operating even in rough sea conditions, ferrying sophisticated damage control equipment and a specialist and experienced naval team rapidly and directly to the stricken ship would have easily averted this disaster.
The most suitable amphibious aircraft that can conduct a near all- weather, high-speed rescue operation for the entire crew of a ditched aircraft is of particular relevance to the Indian Navy, and in fact all Services that operate long range missions over water with aircraft such as the Boeing P-8I long range maritime patrol aircraft and MiG-29K deck-based fighters of the Navy, to the IAF’s shore based AWACS and MiG-29, Su-30MKI and Jaguar maritime interdiction fighters. An aircraft is more easily replaced than its highly trained aircrew. Similarly, the rescue of a crew of distressed ship or submarine is faster and surer with amphibious aircraft than using ships or even helicopters. Combat missions may also be undertaken by suitable amphibious aircraft. Rapid and precision insertion and extraction of troops along undefended coastlines for covert or force projection operations is one example. Such an asset builds confidence in the crew that they have a very good chance of recovery even at sea – a capability that does not exist as of now.
Amphibious aircraft are also being used as airborne firefighters, carrying several tonnes of seawater to douse fires ashore or on oil rigs. Amphibious aircraft can also support remote communities in distant islands or remote land frontiers – those in proximity of deep lakes and rivers – with logistics and medical support.
Amphibian aircraft therefore have multifarious applications for naval forces and as the technology is maturing these aircraft are under induction by several navies including China, which would possibly put a 60 tonne amphibian aircraft in the IOR waters by next year.
The Amphibian Century
Amphibian aircraft made their debut on 28 March 1911 when the Fabre Hydravion took-off from water at Martigues. By end of World War I, amphibians had completed transcontinental flights and in some instances even been refuelled by ships and submarines at sea. Post-1918, amphibian aircraft were at their zenith. After World War II, however, these aircraft lost their charm somewhat, although limited civil and commercial applications continued.
Today, modern technological advances have made it possible for amphibian aircraft to conduct a variety of naval missions ranging from benign to constabulary and even to military operations. Indian Naval Aviation, which formally ‘ took off’ at Cochin on 11 May 1953, began operating the Short Sealand, an amphibian aircraft, as the first Indian Naval Aircraft. However, the capability of operating such aircraft faded thereafter, as the Indian Navy progressed to induct conventional aircraft and developed a carrier-borne capability. With the advent of modern technology in amphibian aircraft,
it is only natural that Indian Navy has now sought to re-acquire this unique capability, to truly realise its ‘blue water’ ambitions.
Amphibian aircraft combine the capabilities of broad surveillance and prompt response, whether for relief or arrest, in a single platform. Such capability is not available on any other type of aircraft. The modern amphibian aircraft is thus a veritable force multiplier since it fulfils a multitude of missions in a single platform. Unlike helicopters and conventional aircraft, amphibian aircraft can land at almost any location to enforce both the will and the law of the country and thus are a platform of choice for benign and constabulary missions. Unlike ships, amphibians can reach an area of interest faster, preventing destruction or dumping of contraband and evidence.
Amphibian multi- utility cargo and transport aircraft are today capable of a variety of missions. Under Article 98 of the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), “every coastal State shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea and, where circumstances so require, by way of mutual regional arrangements cooperate with neighbouring States for this purpose.” Amphibian aircraft fit this purpose completely.
As regards Piracy, one of the most pressing international problems facing the seafaring community today, as per the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), military aircraft are “entitled to seize (Article 107),” enjoy “right of visit (Article 110)” and “right of hot pursuit (Article 111).” Amphibian aircraft can thus be very useful in conducting antipiracy missions and efficient, effective and economic policing operations for safe and secure seas. Once the deterrence value of amphibian aircraft is clearly established by conducting a few successful operations that bring culprits to book, seas will become far safer and more secure in the future and at lesser operating cost.
These aircraft can now therefore be tasked for multifarious naval and maritime missions such as: Surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and on-spot investigation in the EEZ and on high seas Long range naval logistic and maintenance support through ferrying of specialised dockyard personnel and spares to a Fleet during overseas deployment Long Range and Rapid Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations Mainland to distant island and inter island logistic support without need of a runway Long range fleet support including crew rotation on high seas Oceanic Search and Rescue (SAR) and casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) from ships, submarines and oilrigs Monitoring, servicing and protection of offshore assets Controlling of derelicts and abandoned vessels Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in the Indian Ocean Region Countering small arms, shoulder launched weapons and drugs trafficking and terrorism at sea Countering illegal human migration Prevention of poaching and illegal fishing Prevention of toxic cargo dumping at sea and pollution control Anti-piracy missions Anti terrorism Support for deep sea mining activities, offshore cable laying and hydrocarbon prospecting Recovery of ditched aircrew at sea Direct and rapid access to the Indian outpost ‘ Bharati’ in Antartica. For India, aspiring to regional power status, its Navy must not only be able to address the immediate security needs of the country and defeat the enemies of the state but must also contribute in benign and constabulary operations in its area of interest and influence for the regional good. From a maritime perspective this power status contributes to burden sharing towards protection of global public goods and the oceanic commons to achieve firstly, freedom of navigation and safety at sea; secondly, promote regional stability through an open and participative security architecture; thirdly, proactively alleviate suffering during disasters in the littorals of friendly nations: and, finally a constabulary capacity to maintain order at sea for the common good of the region. Whilst ships, submarines and aircraft are all qualified in some way or the other for fulfilling the above missions each of these platforms are also limited by some capability gap or the other. Modern amphibious aircraft make possible a range of options not achievable by any one type of platform. It’s unique multi-modal design permits airborne, seaborne and land operations in a single platform and thus is a highly effective force multiplier for the Indian Navy.
The Strategic Dimensions
Strategically, India must bear in mind that China is also in the process of designing and manufacture of the ‘Jialong’ (Water Dragon) AG600 amphibian aircraft. This aircraft is potentially the largest amphibian aircraft in the world. Media reports suggest that final assembly of the aircraft would be completed by end-2015 and first flight tentatively scheduled for mid-2016. The aircraft is expected to service the many artificial islands being built by China in the South China Sea and to increase China’s presence in the Indian Ocean Region. It is also aimed at tapping the potential global commercial amphibian market.
In addition to requirements of the Indian Armed Forces and various military users of amphibious aircraft, it is also worth considering the applications of such a platform in the commercial sector. As per latest reports of IATA and other aviation professional agencies, annual air traffic growth rate of 10.5% and higher has been almost constant over the last decade and is expected to be even higher in the coming years. Consequently, the capacity overload of current airports and the demand for point-to-point connections need serious consideration. The Government’s Draft Civil Aviation Policy, 2015, has listed several initiatives and policy directions for the growth of the commercial aviation sector in India. The aim of the Indian Government is to provide an eco-system and level playing field to various aviation sub-sectors, i.e. airlines, airports, cargo, maintenance repairs and overhaul services, general aviation, aerospace manufacturing, skill development, and so on. The Government has also proposed to take "flying to the masses" by making it more affordable. For example, if every Indian in the middle-class
income bracket were to take just one flight per year, it would result in a sale of 300 million tickets, a big jump from the 70 million domestic tickets sold in 2014-15. This will be possible if airfares, especially on regional routes, are brought down to an affordable level. The growth in aviation will create a larger multiplier effect in terms of investments, tourism and employment generation, especially for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.
Based on this policy and the vast coastline and several exotic islands in the Lakhshadweep and Andaman Seas that India is endowed with the stage is set to create a positively buoyant market for seaplanes or amphibians as a mode of civil air transportation in the future. With the anticipated growth in civil aviation, landbased airports would be bursting at the seams to accommodate increased passenger and freight traffic. Moreover, new airports would require additional real estate, with attendant land acquisition issues and substantial capital expenditure toward associated infrastructure development. Induction of amphibious aircraft in the commercial segment would not only decongest existing airports loads but would also allow the use of sea ports as an alternate operating area for civil aviation.
Various market segments for potential use of amphibian aircraft in the civil application are: Leisure and tourism/ semi-commercial segment, which is presently the largest segment for seaplanes/ amphibian aircraft. Commuter market segment: while the traditional commuter traffic offers scheduled flights from smaller airports to the hubs or point–to-point connections between smaller airports, the amphibian aircraft could provide three alternative variants in the local passenger transportation segment:Flight from the nearest major land airport to the seaport or return. Flight between two water landing fields. Flight between a land airport and sea port located at a far distance (flight between selected large airports and island tourist resorts) Special markets for cargo movement and fire-fighting capability could use amphibious capabilities very effectively. At the international level, commercial applications of seaplanes are already enjoying great success in the Maldives and Mauritius islands, as also in Polynesia, the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic region including the Great Lakes, where local operators are using more than 70 seaplanes. However, these aircraft are limited to less than 19 passengers, and cover short distances at low speeds. Longer endurance and higher speed seaplanes with the ability to tackle rough seas are likely to be a favoured mode of transportation for tourist traffic, particularly since the demand for exotic and distant locales are on the rise. This would also spur a demand for freight and cargo to sustain these resorts.
With the growth of such platforms, new traffic routes can be developed with the advantage of short flights, including point- to- point connections to national and international airports using natural landing strips on the sea. Scheduled commuter seaplane/amphibian operations are non- existent in the Indian market though they proliferate in Canada, Malta and the Pacific islands already. Very limited seaplane services are being used in the Andaman Islands, Kerala and Maharashtra, as the current Indian market and aircraft operators not only lack a modern seaplane of international standards and regulations they also face non-existent infrastructure and complete lack of expertise in maintenance and operations of mid-size amphibians as regional transport aircraft.
An Indian Amphibian
With such capability already on the verge of induction into the Indian Armed Forces, in the recent future, it would be worth a measured guess that the necessary infrastructure, operating philosophy and
maintenance infrastructure including MRO technology of such aircraft would also be created in India. The Government has been in the process of developing India’s own Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA) under the aegis of NAL and HAL. It would be worthwhile therefore to carry out a cost benefit analysis and explore the feasibility of an indigenously- designed amphibian aircraft as the Indian regional transport aircraft for meeting both domestic and export demand. This may make good business sense since the RTA market is already overcrowded with the lead players such as Bombardier, Embraer, ATR and more recently some Chinese and Russian entry level aircraft for this segment with multifarious product profiles.
These considerations certainly create the possibility of a potential business opportunity with new technology and innovative applications that can find a sufficiently vibrant potential customer base. It may therefore be a viable option for the Government to consider a technical collaboration or partnership with an established amphibious aircraft manufacturer to develop the RTA as an amphibious platform for commercial applications which is a niche market with very limited players in both the domestic and global market and thus may offer substantial opportunity for India to be an exporter of amphibious aircraft.
In addition to the obvious benefits of low infrastructure requirements, pointto-point connectivity and decongesting of present airports, with adequate numbers, commonality of platform and maintenance infrastructure even the operating cost of such a platform could be reduced to a great extent for both military and civil operators. It must be understood that there are many island territories in the Indian sub-continent with poor accessibility. Accessibility can be improved drastically by introduction of amphibian air traffic. Such operations that would connect distant islands with the mainland will have several downstream benefits of developing these areas and relocating populations, enhancing tourism revenues and creating a modern aerospace industry in India.
The market demand is promising if amphibian aircraft/seaplanes could provide competitive flights to inaccessible island areas or coastal locations or to industrial/ business areas by saving valuable time compared to other available means of transportation. For many passengers, amphibious/seaplane operations may offer that ‘unique’ or ‘special’ type of journey and also provide aeronautical culture opportunity to people who do not live close to the established airports. Last but not least, amphibious aircraft/ seaplanes may provide a ' sense of freedom' for passengers to move outside the artificial world of airports, controlled airspace and aeronautical bureaucracy.
So, while the amphibious aircraft is a force multiplier for maritime forces the time has come for India to carry out a serious study towards the relevance of ‘flying boats’ in easing the ever-increasing demand of air traffic in the near future. The opportunities are many but options are limited. Civil operations of a credible amphibian platform designed to suit Indian market could surely be one solution. Of course key operational parameters such as Short Take Off and Landing ( STOL) ability, high sea state operations, good payload, long range and high-speed flight is a necessity for successful operations.
Cmde Sujeet Samaddar, NM (Retd)