Attack from the Sea

attack from the seaI’ve always been interested in the ‘Let’s give it a crack’ design philosophies of the 1950s and ‘60s – long before the advent of computer-aided design took all the coolness out of aircraft prototyping (although not the cost, as the F-35 Flying Pig demonstrates every day). This was an era where, if you wanted to know how a new design might perform, you built it and flew it… Thus, the design philosophy and development saga of Martin’s P6 SeaMaster has interested me for some years. I bought the Airmodel 1/72 vacuform model of the SeaMaster in the 90s, started it in the early 2000s and plan to finish it ‘one day’ (Roger Fitch!). In the meantime, I enjoy researching about this and other aircraft of this era…

Late in 2006, I was in Norfolk (VA, not UK) for the first planning conference for the 2007 iteration of the Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration (CWID). Having a spare hour or two of shopping time the day before I started to unwind the rubber band back home, I found myself in a Barnes and Noble in one of those big strip malls and stumbled across a copy of William Trimble’s Attack from the Sea. It hadn’t been released for very long and commanded a handsome price (this was also before our two dollars started to approach parity) I opted out of purchasing it.

Cut forward five years and I’m now not only regularly attending Air and Space Interoperability Council (ASIC) meetings in the US, but I have a contact in DC who was happy to receive and hold any US purchases for me until my next visit – almost a necessity for heavy and/or bulky items since the US Postal Service took it upon itself to no longer support international surface post – Hello? Just because you are the only nation that plays in the ‘World’ Series doesn’t mean that there’s not the rest of the planet out there!!!! Shortening a longer story, I finally acquired a hard copy of Attack from the Sea in March last year.

The Airmodel SeaMaster being a LONG term project, I didn’t actually get round to reading it until this year when I resolved to start reading more professionally oriented books as part of refocusing myself on the development of Air-related course work and also working towards more regular publication of such work.

So…the techo stuff…although listed as 196 pages only 142 are actually devoted to the text, the remainder being set aside for end notes and a bibliography. I’m always a bit wary of books that have been derived from a thesis as the thesis structure does not always translate into an attractively readable book format. Although both are comprehensive and possibly of use to other scholars and researchers, they are somewhat dry and add no value to the story other than listing sources used.

I especially hate those thesis-derived books that harp on and on about the research practices followed, i.e. following the research template, instead of employing this for the actual conduct of their research and then telling the story in the thesis proper. Fortunately, Attack from the Sea does not fall into this trap for young players and its narrative flows clearly and logically towards its inevitable unhappy ending – no spoiler alert needed here as the dust cover and introduction both make no effort to disguise the fate of the Seaplane Striking Force.

It is important to remember – and the text does not cover this – that the concept of a Seaplane Striking Force was independent of the infrastructure necessary to support both heavy land-based bombers AND carrier-based naval aviation. This was borne in a time space-based reconnaissance and surveillance was in the realm of Analog and Amazing Stories than practical military capability. Thus it was quite practical to consider a force of large fast seaplanes that could operate from lakes, fjords or open water, supported by ships, submarines and other seaplanes – fighters, patrol and resupply – and invisible to potential adversaries until committed to a strike. Today, modern ISR capabilities may render the original concept untenable in any conventional high-intensity symmetric conflict but then we haven’t seen many of those recently.

William Trimble details the Seaplane Striking Force from its inception between the Wars through to post-WW2 attempts to develop it into a practical part of America’s nuclear deterrent capability. Although the text on the larger programme gives the reader a good grasp of the SSF and how it could have been employed, it does not devote enough space (constrained by the limits of research templates?) to the development of each of the three main aircraft that would have been the mainstays of the SSF:

the Convair F2Y-1 Sea Dart fighter,
sea dart

the Convair R3Y-1 Tradewind patrol and logistic support aircraft, and


the Martin P6M-1 SeaMaster heavy bomber.

seamaster plan

The SeaMaster receives the lion’s share of the coverage, followed by the Sea Dart with the Tradewind coming in a slow third; nor are the proposed supporting naval platforms covered in as much detail as the Seamaster. In some ways this is fair as a discussion on a seaplane striking force probably needs to cover the strike element in some detail but it does lead to a feeling that the problems with the Seamaster were the main reason that the programme was cancelled in 1959.

The actual reasons that the US Navy decided to axe the SSF (literally as none of the 14 Seamasters built survive today) were two-fold. Firstly, the programme’s costs had not been properly budgeted, nor had proper management processes been embedded in the programme to monitor and mitigate cost increases.

Secondly, by 1959, it was starting to become clear that nuclear submarines could provide an even more secure deterrent/counter-strike capability than any other platform and no role was seen for a naval heavy bomber capability.

What is surprising is that the advent of the nuclear ballistic missile submarine did not equally threaten air force nuclear heavy bomber capabilities, allowing the USAF to continue development of heavy nuclear strike options like the XB-70 in the mid-60s and the original B-1A in the 1970s. It is ironic that conventional attack has saved both the B-52 and the B-1 from the breaker’s yards. Had the B-70 gone into production, it would probably now be an expensive lemon unable to perform any roles other than nuclear stand-by and limited strategic ISR (but, then, that’s what we had the SR-71 for).

This begs the question whether the Seamaster would have been a credible and practical capability had it been introduced into service in its planned numbers of at least two strike complexes, each of 36 aircraft, one complex each for the Pacific and Atlantic theatres . The author alludes to other roles, but only as a passing thought in a brief mention of how it might have operated during the Vietnam War. This brevity is unfortunate in a book published in 2005 when numerous other employment contexts could have been examined to add contemporary context to what might have been.

“…the possibilities for such a force were virtually “unlimited”. It was easy to concentrate the numbers of aircraft needed to “saturate” the air over the landing force and protect the shore bases as they were built. The landing zone could be spread out over a wide area, complicating the enemy’s defense and decreasing the vulnerability of friendly forces to counter-attack…in the nuclear age dispersal was even more vital, because a single weapon could easily wipe out the entire force. Aircraft ranges could be enhanced by refuelling from a submarine or a surface ship, damaged aircraft could land anywhere offshore, and all-weather operations were easier because precise shipboard landings were not necessary… ”

US practical demonstrations of long range aerial force projection since 1990 remain impressive feats with flight times in excess of 24 hours. However these are only achievable at the cost of logistic support, mainly air to air refuelling, and expenditure of aircraft hours. With the last B-52 rolling out in 1962 and the last production B-1B in 1988, no matter how good the upgrade and zero hour programme, these aircraft remain finite resources. In addition, such long sorties extract a toll upon flight crews that must affect in-flight performance. Where national positions may preclude the use of regional airbases for heavy bomber forces, where such facilities are simply not available, or where they are not secure, there very well may be a greater role for a Seamaster-like capability than there ever was in the 50s. In addition, the example of Vietnam in Attack from the Sea, other regional deployment possibilities might include:

RAF Seamasters operated covertly from locations closer to the Falklands Islands operational theatre than those flown during the Black Buck missions. The Seamasters ability to base anywhere that sea or other waterway conditions permitted would have aggravated Argentina’s air defence problem by opening avenues of attack other than from the North.

Seamasters  deployed into the Mediterranean as part of ELDORADO CANYON as an alternative to the long flight around France, Italy and Spain to avoid hurting European sensibilities.

USAF Seamasters operating from secure locations in the Red Sea and Mediterranean provided more responsive heavy attack during DESERT STORM, and also easily surged into location during Saddam’s various sword rattling activities during the 90s.

Seamasters added another string to the bow of US ‘big stick’ diplomacy in the former Yugoslavia after the signing of the Dayton Accord in 1995; and again over Kosovo in 1999.

RAF Seamasters operated alongside the UK forces deployed to Sierra Leone in the lead up to the BARRAS rescue mission. Their ability to deploy both precision heavy aerial munitions up to 2000 pounds and mini-munitions weighing less than 5kg enabled the Seamaster force to provide local commanders a range of response options not available from any other strike platform in the UK armoury.

Seamasters provided a credible and more responsible heavy attack capability to ENDURING FREEDOM in 2001 and 2002, operating from secure locations much closer than the US bases from which the US heavy bomber force operated from. Ditto IRAQI FREEDOM from 2003 onwards.

While NATO forces established themselves in Poggia, Seamasters removed the requirement for RAF Tornados to sortie from UK bases to launch attacks on Libya in the early stages of ELLAMY in 2011.

In a myriad of small wars and irregular activities, the Seamaster’s ability to sea-base added a new obstacle to an insurgents ability to breach local defences and attack aircraft and crews directly as occurred at Camp Bastion in 2012, with the loss of six irreplaceable USMC Harrier attack jets.

Although aging by the early 21st Century, RNZAF Seamasters enabled ANZAC forces to deploy advanced ISR and precision attack capabilities into South Pacific theatres beyond the practical reach of ADF Super Hornets and F-35 Emus (they look like birds but don’t really fly that well!)

Yes, what never was and what might have been…

I enjoyed Attack from the Sea – it is well-researched and well-written and provides insights into operational concepts like the Seaplane Striking Force that are not well-known today; and also, and perhaps more topical, some insights into the dangers of inadequately managed development programme, with specific regard to cost overruns.

I see that someone else on WordPress also likes this book [Attack from the Sea — book review] and makes a point that I missed:

“…One thing, and probably the only thing, not explained was the USN’s decision to purposely destroy the remaining 16 SeaMaster aircraft but keep all the Sea Dart aircraft. This decision was either myopic or, maybe, shameful, but its rationale appears lost in the fog of history — especially so if Trimble could not make a determination…”

The same spiteful vandalism was also inflicted on the AVRO Canada CF-105 Arrow (leading to the RCAF’s interesting little dalliance with the Soviets) and the BAC TSR.2 – you have to ask yourself…WHY???

As they say down the hall in the Lessons Learned broom cupboard, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it….

1 thought on “Attack from the Sea

  1. Pingback: Cool things I got for my birthday 2013 « The World According to Me…

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