Why are there no seaplane AWACS?

AWACS aircraft are excellent force multipliers, with their detection and networking capabilities. Due to their altitude, they can allow a naval force to “see” beyond the radar horizon. However, they are often limited to operating from a country's land bases, or in the case of the US and France, from large, expensive aircraft carriers.

Since building carriers that can operate them is expensive, why don’t more navies opt to use seaplanes, which can be supplied by a destroyer, or amphibious assault ship. That would provide a fleet with radar cover regardless of its location relative to land bases.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ seaplanes only work in small calm lakes, rivers, and sheltered very flat harbours (they should be called "lake planes" ! $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented May 6 at 12:02

5 Answers 5


The E-2 Hawkeye is a carrier based aircraft that fills that role for the US Navy. It is an older airframe, but very capable, and a replacement is in work.


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Seaplanes don't do particularly well on the rough seas of the open ocean, and the Navy abandoned that idea a long time ago. The Hawkeye is perfectly capable of providing support to all ships and aircraft within a Battlegroup.

  • $\begingroup$ The US Navy is just one of many navies in the world, though. $\endgroup$ Commented May 6 at 8:39
  • $\begingroup$ @VladimirFГероямслава, indeed it is, but I don't know enough about each of the other Navies to answer for them. $\endgroup$ Commented May 6 at 15:33

Seaplanes need extensive support infrastructure, and are hard to operate in all but the smoothest of sea states. They're also hell to maintain because of the salt water corrosion affecting everything (ship borne helicopters and aircraft have similar problems but to a lesser degree).

That's why most countries did away with them when land bases became prevalent enough to use those instead and the range of land based aircraft enough to be able to operate further from your base.


Because we are no longer in the age of battleships.

In the age of battleships, your major firepower came directly from ships (big guns), and those ships would have benefited greatly from AWACS or similar for targeting enemy forces. Modern ships have cruise missiles and other smarter weapons for long-distance firepower. It is a different world.

How are AWCS "force multipliers"? By supporting land, air and sea forces.

If you have significant land forces but no air forces in a particular battle zone then you either capture an airstrip and use that, or you rely on modern ships that may not have that much firepower but do have advanced radar and command/control systems which can support your troops.

If you have significant air forces in the area then a seaplane-based AWACS isn't needed unless the rest of your forces - fighters, bombers, etc. - are also seaplanes. And no modern armed forces have any significant seaplane fighters, bombers, etc. You fly the AWACS out of the same friendly air fields or aircraft carriers as the rest of your aircraft.

If you have significant naval forces but no aircraft carriers then you rely on shipboard radar and command/control systems. You may also be able to make use of helicopter-based AWACS systems, as many ships that are smaller than aircraft carriers do have helipads.


There is also a political element to this question.

If a nation has no political desire to use force away from their own territory, they can simply use land based aircraft operating from their own runways.

If they intend to use force in support of allies, they can reasonably assume that ally will allow use of runways, given anywhere that can operate airliners can support a useful number of AWACS very quickly (vs the equipment needed to support useful numbers of combat aircraft in terms of apron space, ground support, weapon handling etc). Getting political permission to operate unarmed airliner conversions is also much easier and faster than weapon carrying platforms.

If a nation intends to use force offshore and already owns carriers, placing AWACS on those carriers is the logical and easy choice, or at worst support a land based AWACS on station using carrier based tankers.

For a nation that does not own full sized aircraft carriers but does have a domestic aviation industry, modifying an existing helicopter may be less capable but much easier than establishing a bespoke flying boat program.

This produces a fairly narrow slice of users interested in a water based fixed wing AWAC, none of whom have chosen to spend money in this way at this time. Unless a power with serious wealth and expansion ambitions emerges among the pacific nations (islands with sheltered water but limited space for runways) it seems unlikely anyone will invest the resources in developing one.


Most of the current AWACS models are either based on civilian aircraft (E-3, E-7), or have been adapted to other roles (E-2 -> C-2). The obvious advantages of this is that any R&D costs are spread over more airframes, and the military operators get lots of experience virtually for free from the civilian world.

If you were to build seaplane AWACS, what problem would it solve? All the current US AWACS models are able to refuel in flight, meaning that the main limit would be the onboard crew. You could land and swap crews of course, but what location would be so far from land that this would be a more attractive option than returning to a land base to swap crews?

Seaplanes are a lot more sensitive to weather compared to land based planes, if the waves are too rough, they can't land. If they are unable to land, they need the range to go somewhere else: either a place far enough away that the weather is likely to be better, or to a land base. They also require more maintenance, as they are essentially big floating fragile metal things operating in a harsh environment with lots of salt water.

Point Nemo is the point on earth the furthest from any landmass, approximately 2.500 miles from Easter Island with its international airport. If it became necessary, I suspect that the US would be allowed to use that to base AWACS planes on. But: Why? A point far away from everything is unlikely to be of interest to anyone. If you have a fleet (or a convoy) transitioning through the area, it makes more sense to patrol the entire route rather than just flying around the immediate area where the patrol is located. And; AWACS are primarily meant for airborne threats, you still need other assets for surface- or submerged threats...


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