No F-35 or Bomber: This 1 Simple Thing Might Help America Win a War with China

Wang Peng was nervous. As a watch supervisor for the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, he had been hand-picked to oversee and coordinate the first overt act of the conflict with America. Wang Peng was normally a confident man. His career had seen him command missile batteries, work on the development of the newest hypersonic glide vehicles and penetration aids, and serve multiple tours developing plans and policy for the PLA. He believed in his mission – to defend China against foreign encroachment and ensure China was respected on the world stage – and had faith that technological and doctrinal advances made the Rocket Force a potent instrument of power.

Editor’s note: this story is a work of fiction, exploring how a war might happen.

Three years ago, he would have been confident. His mission was to deny America the ability to project power into the First Island Chain. To do this, the Rocket Force had two principal targets: naval vessels and aerial-refueling tankers. Anti-ship ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles had already pushed the U.S. Navy far out into the Marianas Islands and limited their strike capacity by forcing them to swap cruise missiles for surface-to-air missiles to defend themselves. The U.S. Navy had done the rest by procuring short-ranged strike fighters that were all but useless in a contested environment. The tanker problem had originally been easier – just strike the handful of bases capable of handling America’s tankers, destroy the fuel farms, and attempt to kill the aircraft themselves. By killing the tanker force, the strategic bombers based in the continental U.S. would be mission-killed without needing to strike the American homeland or intercept them en-route. Much to Wang Peng’s dismay, however, intelligence had monitored a shift in American war plans that threatened to undermine much of the Rocket Force’s potency.  

Wang Peng looked over the watch floor to a new set of computer terminals and a joint team of Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel. He cursed the amount of time it had taken to get the equipment installed – he was sure American watchstanders didn’t have to deal with the amount of bureaucracy and the slow speed that came with buying anything after the anti-corruption reforms. The terminals were plugged in to a supercomputer, requisitioned from academia, with the sole objective of trying to find America’s seaplane tanker force.

Fifty Miles East of Guam

Lieutenant Commander Jessica Morello was living her dream. She sat in the left seat of the aircraft, a 200,000-pound machine gently rolling with the waves. The seas were calm, with a slight swell from a westardly wind. She had the window and hatch above her head open, headset wrapped around her neck, and a tablet on her knee. She was snacking on a protein bar and chatting with her co-pilot, Air Force Captain John Marks, waiting for contact with the tender. The joint Navy-Air Force crew reflected the joint nature of the program. The Navy was, in a repeat of the original Seaplane Striking Force debate, unwilling to divert funds from the carrier force. As a result, the Air Force funded the majority of the bill and provided most of the pilots. The Navy’s contribution came from a few pilots and the tender operation.

Captain Marks was shaking his head laughing at Morello’s explanation of her callsign, “SLAM.”

Morello had previously explained, “It’s actually an acronym that stands for ‘Super Lost Above Miramar,’ before I got into the program I was on a training mission out of Lemoore and accidentally rejoined on the wrong lead – so while the rest of the squadron flew off, I was following a Marine back to Miramar and didn’t realize it until we were calling approach. It’s hard to come back from that one, so I was renamed the next week.” Marks was still laughing when the tablet on Morello’s knee lit up, “Neptune to Penguin – coming up now, five-hundred yards out.”

Morello snapped at Marks, “Let’s get it started up.” The two officers opened their checklists and started to bring engine #2, previously off to conserve fuel, online. As the engine came alive, Marks scanned the engine instruments to ensure the engine was operating smoothly while Morello looked around at the water outside the aircraft.

The headset cracked to life, “This is Neptune, we’re at your five o’clock on the surface.” Morello kicked the left rudder pedal and leaned forward in her seat, straining to look back. As she did, the water rudder on the aircraft opened up to slowly turn it left. She advanced the right throttle to speed up the turn. Marks, responsible for the radio responded, “Copy, we’re turning.”

As they passed through forty-dive degrees of turning, Morello called out that she had the tender. Another forty-five degrees and Marks could see it too. There, sitting proudly on the surface, was how it all came together for the seaplane tanker force. The black hull of the USS Georgia looked menacing compared to the blue sky and white clouds around them. The Georgia had started life as a ballistic missile submarine ready to rain nuclear death upon America’s enemies. But, she had evolved. First, into a guided missile submarine carrying 154 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles and then into her current form as a seaplane tender. Darwin would have been proud.

As a seaplane tender, Georgia had seen her missile tubes replaced by fuel storage. The space taken up by the 24 Trident Tubes turned 154 Tomahawk tubes was immense. In tanker configuration, Georgia carried approximately 1.5 million pounds of fuel, enough to fill ten B-2 stealth bombers to max fuel capacity. The concept was relatively simple and took inspiration from both the Nazi German milch-cow U-boats and the Navy’s own Seaplane Strike Force experiments in the 1950s.

American planners had identified that the critical vulnerability in Global Strike Command’s ability to project power was tanker bases. Flying from CONUS, the B-52s, B-1s, B-2s, and eventually B-21s would be required to tank multiple times both before and after striking targets anywhere near the Chinese coast. The planes could take a Northern route – topping off over the West Coast and Alaska, but closer to Japan things got trickier. If the Japanese were in the fight, it worked out well – it was unlikely that China would strike Japan and, if they did, there were numerous airfields to disperse to. The problem was if the Japanese – or other American allies – were out of the fight. This was the worrisome scenario for American planners.

The U.S. controlled bases – namely Hawaii, Midway, Wake, and Guam plus the Marshalls and Palau – were small enough in number to be extremely vulnerable to a first strike. And, since adversaries had likely learned from Japan’s failure to destroy Pearl Harbor’s fuel farm at the start of World War II, it was all the more likely that Guam’s fuel farm would be clobbered in any opening blow. Without these bases and their fuel supplies, American bombers wouldn’t be able to reach their targets without a prohibitive amount of tanker support.

Enter the seaplane tanker force. In a modern revival of the P6M Seamaster, the Air Force had funded a rapid design effort to build the seaplanes and given money to the Navy to fund the conversion of the Georgia and a few other littoral combat ships to act as tenders. The Georgia and a few Independence-class littoral combat ships acted as tenders: packed with fuel and, in the LCS’ case, supplies. The seaplanes would operate from Apra Harbor during peacetime and scattered throughout the ocean during wartime. They could get fuel from either of their tender options and conduct maintenance back at Apra or from the surface tenders. While plans called for three squadrons of 15 planes each – enough to ensure that around 20 were operational at any given time, the contractor had only been able to construct 20 planes total by 2029. Technical issues had delayed the first test flight and the first three vehicles were at Patuxent River for test and evaluation. Two others had been written off after severe structural damage – one after bumping into a tender and the other after a hard landing in rough weather – leaving only fifteen aircraft operational in the Pacific. It was the price of doing seaplane business after half a century without it.

“Penguin to Neptune, we’re coming up on your port side,” Marks said into the radio. The reply came back quickly, “Roger Penguin, sending the guide line out now.”

The seaplane pilots could see activity on the sub’s conning tower as the crew launched a quadcopter carrying the guide line. The guide line was the first step in the refueling process. After it was secured, then the fuel line could be sent over on the same path. The pilots, with their aircraft perpendicular to the submarine, could see the drone fly toward them and over them to the fuel receiver on top of the wing. The drone landed in a recessed section of the wing with guide wire attached, its job complete for now. With the guide wire secured, the submarine raised a tall mast from the conning tower. This mast, attached to the guide wire, would be used to send over the fuel line.

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