Modern amphibian aircraft make possible a range of options not achievable by any one platform. Its unique multimodal design permits airborne, seaborne and land operations in a single platform. Amphibious aircraft can operate both on land and water while seaplanes can operate from water surfaces only.
With India aspiring for 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 be able to 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 first, freedom of navigation and safety at sea; second, promote regional stability through an open and participative security architecture; third, 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.
Development of such capabilities and induction of the appropriate enabling systems signal a firm regional commitment towards maintaining regional stability and maritime security and safety but is also an affirmation of delivering on the natural responsibilities that come with great power status. While ships, submarines and aircraft are all qualified in some way or the other for fulfilling the above missions, each of these platforms is also limited by some capability gap or the other. Modern amphibian aircraft make possible a range of options not achievable by any one platform. Its unique multi-modal design permits airborne, seaborne and land operations in a single platform. Amphibious aircraft can operate both on land and water while seaplanes can operate from water surfaces only.
Beginning its debut on March 28, 1911, when the Hydravion took off from water at Martinque, seaplanes by the end of World War I had completed transcontinental flights and in some instances have even been refuelled by ships and submarines at sea. After World War II, seaplanes lost their charm though limited civil and commercial applications continued.
Recent technological advances have now catapulted seaplanes into a veritable force-multiplier for maritime operations. Seaplanes can now provide mainland-inter island support, monitoring, servicing and protection of offshore assets, EEZ and high seas surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, oceanic search and rescue and casualty evacuation, long-range fleet logistic and maintenance support, long-range visit, board, search and seizure operations, controlling derelicts, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations and countering small arms and drugs trafficking, human migration, poaching and toxic cargo dumping at sea, etc. Unlike conventional helicopters and aircraft, amphibian aircraft can land at the location and enforce the will or the law of the country. The unique feature of these aircraft is that it combines the capabilities of rapid surveillance and prompt response, whether for relief or arrest, in a single platform. Of particular significance is that as per the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), military aircraft are “entitled to seize” (Article 107) and enjoy “right of visit” (Article 110), and the “right of hot pursuit” (Article 111). Amphibious aircraft can thus be very useful in conducting anti-piracy missions; and efficient, effective and economic constabulary operations for fishery protection, prevention of toxic dumping at sea, illegal human migration and smuggling of weapons and drugs. Once the deterrence value of amphibious aircraft is clearly established by conducting a few successful operations that bring culprits to book, our seas will be far more safe and secure.
Of particular relevance to the Indian Navy and in fact all navies that operate longrange maritime patrol aircraft or airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft or shore-based maritime interdiction aircraft, is in the choice of the most suitable amphibious aircraft that can conduct a near all-weather high speed rescue operation for the entire crew of a ditched aircraft either by accident or in battle. The aircraft is more easily replaceable than its highly trained crew of pilots and observers. Similarly, the rescue of a crew of distressed ship or submarine is faster with amphibious aircraft than using ships or even helicopters.
One would also recall that on April 7, 1989, 42 submariners of a nuclear-powered submarine perished in the Norwegian Sea while an IL-38 and a Norwegian P-3 Orion could only drop rescue facilities, after which, its crew, powerlessly watched freezing submariners perish literally before their eyes, as none of them could reach the rescue boats. An amphibious aircraft would have averted the tragedy. This is a lesson of history that India can learn from the experience of the Russians. Civilian disasters on sea are equally numerous but the notable ones are the December 2010 sinking of an asylum-seeker boat killing 48 people off the Christmas Islands, and a loss of 200 lives in December 2011, when a ship sank off Java in rough seas. In June 2012, despite adequate warning and with four Indonesian and Australian warships, four merchant ships and five Australian Government aircraft (but no seaplanes) joining the search in two-metre swells, 90 people were still missing. In the Comoros islands, more than 30 people have died recently following boat capsizes at sea. Article 98 of the UNCLOS requires that “every coastal State shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue service”. Modern amphibious aircraft, which can operate in rough sea conditions, can easily avert such loss and tragedy at a fraction of the cost and time, and ensure that the coastal state is in compliance with Article 98.
For mission effectiveness, the main parameters of performance evaluation would be rough sea operations, range, payload, short take-off and landing (STOL) capabilities, shallow water operations and beaching ability. Of these, rough sea operations are paramount for India. According to a study, only about 60 per cent of all waves are below 1.2-metre in height, but 96 per cent of all waves likely to be encountered are below three-metre in height. Amphibious aircraft must therefore, by design, have full operational capability to undertake maritime missions in wave heights of threemetre as a norm so as to be available for missions all throughout the year, except for a few days. The range must be adequate to conduct missions into the Malacca Strait on the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Aden on the western seaboard. For disaster relief operations, the amphibious aircraft must have a capacity for onboard first aid, a sick bay for at least 10 patients and commensurate rescue gear. STOL features and shallow water operations must permit landing in busy waterways, possible riverine/highaltitude lake operations as well as in open oceans. Low stalling speed would enable better observation of the target area to search for casualties swept away. Payloads would vary with the mission but should be sufficient to carry one platoon of rescue personnel together with disaster relief material. In addition, amphibious aircraft should also be able to land in the rivers and lakes of distant parts of the country and in short runways to support the local population.