U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Comments
With growing interest in USSOCOM potentially acquiring an amphibious C-130J floatplane, or an actual seaplane, the top in-service seaplane contender with a “ship hull belly” remains the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces’ (JMSDF) ShinMaywa US-2, a four-engine propeller seaplane with the primary role of Search and Rescue (SAR), contingency operations, and Humanitarian Disaster Relief. The US-2s that have been built currently serve with the JMSDF.
USSOCOM believes that it can add on pontoons to its existing fleet of MC-130Js to essentially turn them into floatplanes, a concept confirmed at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference 2022 (SOFIC 2022).
“In terms of amphibious MC-130 demonstration, USSOCOM is actually going through some market research, currently, to see if we can identify any potential amphibious capacities to meet some of the SOF Requirements that are existing. And currently AFSOC is also doing an experimental demonstration where they are planning on putting some float assemblies on a C-130 platform. They use digital engineering as a major factor of reducing some of that risk and making some of those changes, and they have gone through some hydrotesting and some aero testing on a subscale factor.”
Rich Rodriguez, USSOCOM’s Tech Director in Emerging Technologies, on the status of the C-130 MAC at SOFIC 2022
There are advantages and disadvantages of this MC-130J floatplane concept. The main advantage is that adding pontoons would use SOCOM’s existing stable of MC-130Js, if the mechanical engineering can be achieved as an add-on float kit. Hypothetically, any C-130J can then be converted into a floatplane if the pontoon kit allows conversion without any major structural modifications. The amphibious MC-130J (or MAC) would appear very similar to the rendering below.
The main disadvantage of this MC-130J MAC floatplane concept is that the fuselage might rest so high up (that is if the pontoons cannot ballast down) so that the rear cargo ramp and side doors are positioned at such a height disadvantage to render waterborne operations difficult to achieve since the floatplane does not have a crane to raise and lower small boats from the ocean’s surface. (The ShinMaywa US-2 can lower and raise small rubber boats by hand through its side doors since its belly rests on the ocean’s surface). Indeed, AFSOC renderings even show ladders and steps from the MC-130J’s fuselage leading to the pontoons and the water’s surface. If the MAC is able to ballast down to the ocean’s surface, that might submerge the FLIR ball under the fuselage nose, jeopardizing its sensitive electronics and optics. Additionally, landing this MC-130J floatplane may prove difficult if the cockpit rests so high up.
Lockheed Martin has designed a seaplane with a boat (or whale belly) hull that can be seen here, but there has been no indication that the Lockheed Martin design progressed beyond a red and white scale model. Naval News reached out to Lockheed Martin for comment on the amphibious MC-130J concept and status and Lockheed deferred all questions to USSOCOM.
Naval News thus reached out to USSOCOM at the end of August 2022 for a MAC status update and Lt. Cassandra Thompson, USSOCOM Public Affairs, replied that the status remains unchanged, citing that the MAC is currently not an official Program of Record within the Defense Department (as of August 2022), and thus there is no new MAC news to share. A check of the U.S. government’s contracting office website confirms that the C-130J MAC isn’t an entry and thus not an official Program of Record.
Naval News also asked USSOCOM on their interest in the ShinMaywa US-2 and received a reply.
“The US-2 visit was a part of USSOCOM continuing to collaborate with AFSOC [U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command] conducting market research activities to analyze amphibious emergent technologies to develop a viable acquisition strategy.”
Lt. Cassandra Thompson, USSOCOM Public Affairs
Photos on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) confirm that U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) personnel did indeed tour the ShinMaywa US-2 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, on February 10, 2022 although USSOCOM offered no additional comments or details to Naval News on their interest or how the US-2 might factor into their acquisition plans due to the sensitive nature of special operations.
Therefore, besides subscale modeling, the actual status of the USSOCOM amphibious MC-130J floatplane remains unknown and unclear and if any would eventually be manufactured for the conventional U.S. maritime forces (U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Coast Guard). The USSOCOM MAC should not be confused with the DARPA “Liberty Lifter.”
ShinMaywa Industries Comments
ShinMaywa’s Aircraft Division’s Sales & Marketing Department replied to Naval News’ inquiry at the end of August 2022 regarding possible production of the US-2 for the United States military. ShinMaywa admitted that the US-2 is being developed for the JMSDF, but they cannot answer questions regarding the US-2’s sensor outfit, production time, and the price per plane, citing customer preferences.
Naval News: Can weapons be mounted to the outside of the US-2?
ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd: “It is difficult to mount weapons on the outside.”
Naval News: Did the United States military ever ask ShinMaywa for any demonstration on the US-2?
ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd: “AFSOC boarded a US-2 in Japan, which is uploaded on the AFSOC website.”
Naval News: Is it possible to produce the US-2 for U.S. military service and if so, what modifications would this entail?
ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd: “It is possible to manufacture US-2 for AFSOC. ShinMaywa is willing to do so. We are promoting it in cooperation with U.S. companies. Maintenance manuals, etc. and equipment need to be made to AFSOC specifications.”
Naval News: How much does a US-2 cost and how long does it take to build one?
ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd: “It is difficult to answer this question as US-2 prices vary widely depending on AFSOC requirements. We also cannot answer the lead time.”
Naval News: How “maintenance intensive” is the US-2 and what is its life expectancy? How long before an overhaul and servicing?
ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd: “Short periodic maintenance intervals as we perform takeoffs and landings at sea. The service life cannot be answered either.”
Naval News: What benefits would the US-2 provide over other seaplanes?
ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd: “The most important feature of the US-2 is its ability to take off and land over very short distances on the water. Compared to other sea planes, it is by far the shortest. ShinMaywa is confident that the US-2 will meet the requirements of the U.S. military better than the C-130J MAC.” ShinMaywa states the US-2 is the only amphibian that can land on rough seas with a wave height of 3 meters.
Naval News: How many US-2s have been built?
ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd: “We are manufacturing US-2, unit No. 9.”
Naval News: Can the US-2 taxi on and off land and into and out of the water?
ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd: “US-2 can take off on land.”
Naval News: Are the instruments’ night-vision goggle compatible and does the US-2 have night vision capability?
ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd: “US-2 does not have night vision capability.”
Naval News: Can the US-2 be refueled in mid-air? Can it be refueled at sea?
ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd: “No in-air refueling capability. There is the ability to refuel from a ship at sea.” The US-2 can fly at 298 MPH or 480 KMH with a range of 2,920 miles or 4,700 kilometers. Water takeoff distance is 280 meters (918 feet) and water landing distance is 330 meters (1,082 feet).
For speculative discussion purposes, an American AFSOC US-2 offers USSOCOM both benefits and issues. With a current low production number (only nine ShinMaywa US-2s have been built so far), the U.S. Armed Forces might see the US-2 as a specialized seaplane if actually purchased for U.S. special operations and maritime forces. The US-2 comes unarmed, and without a rear cargo ramp to potentially drop pallets of bundled precision-guided munitions, arming the US-2 seems remote. However, the U.S. Marine Corps’ KC-130J Harvest HAWK has a precision-guided munitions launcher called the Derringer Door. A rack accommodates up to 10 munitions. Such a Derringer Door might be added to the American US-2 for stand-off armament within the US-2’s pressurized cabin. Interior swingarm machine gun mounts by the side doors could also be an option and the swingarm mounts get folded away to clear the doorways.
A three minute video on the ShinMaywa website shows a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) being hoisted into the US-2’s side door via a rope looped around a knob above the door. The crew pulls the rope and hustles the RHIB to enter the door sideways. The RHIB is deployed by pushing it out the side door. For humans and SAR missions, this might be acceptable method of handling the RHIB because humans are able to use their own muscle power to embark and disembark from the US-2 to and from the RHIB quite rapidly, but for loading and unloading heavy cargo and armament, tying the RHIB by a single rope might prove difficult in heavy seas compared to launching the already-loaded RHIB from the MC-130J MAC’s interior via stern ramp, if at all possible from a MC-130J floatplane.
If adopted into service, the ShinMaywa US-2 seaplane might be a huge help and asset for Visual Board Search and Seizure (VBSS), high speedboat pursuits, and drug, pirate, and smuggling interdictions for the U.S. Coast Guard.
Another question might be how reliable the US-2, if made for U.S. service, will be with all the added U.S. government furnished equipment (GFE) installed compared to an US-2 with all-Japanese manufactured equipment modified to the English language. Since USSOCOM (and the U.S. military) often add on lots of extra GFE equipment (jammers, sensors, countermeasures, night vision, datalinks, and secure communications), how complex would an AFSOC US-2 actually be if its multirole purpose goes beyond Humanitarian Relief, contingencies, and SAR?
“Short periodic maintenance intervals” might turn into long maintenance downtime that would render American US-2s docked at the pier more often than deployed over and on the open water if AFSOC requires a combat-equipped US-2 with all the fancy “high maintenance” U.S. GFE gadgetry as almost standard to any U.S. aircraft. ShinMaywa stated that they’re confident that working with AFSOC would satisfy the American’s special forces’ requirements.
Nonetheless, American US-2s can be the logistic carriers, seaplane tenders and SAR seaplanes for downed pilots that the U.S. Navy so desperately needs. American US-2s can also service, refuel, rearm, and monitor its growing fleet of unmanned surface and sub-surface vessels. To span the “tyranny of distance” that are the world’s oceans, the ShinMaywa US-2 might indeed be a possible solution to U.S. special operations and maritime forces.