The B-17 bomber is often the star in blockbuster war movies, but the Navy's flying boat was much more effective and fearsome.
With a wingspan of over 103 feet, the Martin P6M Sea Master was only inches shorter than the B-17 bomber. And like the B-17, the P6M had a simple job: dropping large bomb loads on enemy cities and infrastructure. For this, the P6M was well suited, with the ability to carry over 4,000 lbs of conventional bombs, mines, camera, and reconnaissance equipment, as well as atomic bombs. But unlike the B-17 and its successors, which were tied to large, expensive, and vulnerable airfields, the P6M was a seaplane and its airfield spanned most of the globe.
A First Strike Responder
By the early 1950s, the United States military was forced to plan for any contingency, which included rapid retaliation against a hypothetical Soviet first-strike. The P6M, which could be based out of any island or ocean around the world and was thus nearly impossible to destroy on the ground, was the Navy's answer to this new need. Had technology not outpaced the Sea Master, fleets of strategic flying boats would have been poised across the oceans to attack the Soviet Union.
The late-1940s were bad years for the US Navy. With the death of several big-ticket projects, including the supercarrier the USS United States, in combination with several budget cuts, many questioned how effective the Navy would remain. Further complicating their problems, the US Air Force, which was emancipated from the Army in 1947, captured the public's imagination.
Strategic Air Command and its sleek, silver, ultra-modern bombers looked like the way of the future, as did their atomic payloads. These bombers looked like the perfect solution to the problem of Cold War-era strategy. Armored divisions and aircraft carriers were large, expensive, and required thousands of soldiers and sailors to operate even one. Worst of all, one division or carrier would do little to secure the United States against the Soviets. A bomber, on the other hand, was cheap in comparison, needed a dozen or fewer crewmembers, and – thanks to its atomic bombs – could hold any city on Earth hostage. In comparison, the Navy looked like the past, the 'old guard' which had to step aside for a new generation.
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If the US Navy is anything, it is flexible and innovative. Through victory and defeat, it learns lessons and comes to the next battle stronger and smarter. If sleek jet-powered bombers were popular, then the Navy would develop its own. If the atomic bomb was the weapon of the future, then the Navy would figure out how to build up its own arsenal. In the 1950s, the institution applied this mindset to its current strategic problem, and the P6M was the result.
P6M Sea Master Development Begins
Initiated in 1951, the program aimed at doing everything the Air Force could do, but better and at sea. The P6M was designed to respond rapidly to developing world crises, such as the Korean War, which began in 1950, or the crisis over the Taiwan Straits which remained an omnipresent concern. Fleets of P6Ms could carry intelligence equipment, conventional bombs to support ground troops and attack infrastructure, as well as the prized atomic bomb. These capabilities gave the Navy tremendous flexibility, not just in how it planned to use the P6M, but also in how they sold it to Congress and the American people.
However, the critical innovation of the plane was its unique design as a naval flying boat. Whereas the B-29, B-36, and B-52 designs used by the Air Force were tied to large airstrips which were increasingly vulnerable to Soviet atomic bombs, the P6M could be stationed anywhere where there was water and a pier. Sea Masters could be stashed next to islands across the Pacific, in the North Sea, around the Eastern Mediterranean, and wherever else the Navy felt there was a Soviet threat. Unlike the Air Force's bombers, which were always vulnerable to a preemptive Soviet attack, the Sea Master could be anywhere, ready to fly at a moment's notice, and armed to respond to any threat. This ability made the Sea Master very popular in Washington, especially to those politicians who were already growing increasingly suspicious with the Air Force’s 'one-size-fits-all' nuclear approach to the Soviet Union.
The development of the P6M was initially plagued with difficulties. While flying boats had been around for decades, designers at Martin quickly realized they couldn’t just slap a few jet engines on to an existing design and call it a day. The unique requirements laid out by the Navy (fast, jet-powered, and with a heavy bomb load) meant that the Sea Master had to do things that no other flying boat had before. These challenges took time and money to solve, but by the late 1950s, the Navy had worked out the P6M's design challenges and was ready to move on to full-scale production.
As with many long-term projects, technology overcame the P6M. In this case, it was the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile. The Polaris, whose development began in 1955, the same year as the first successful flight of the P6M, gave the Navy the capability of launching nuclear missiles with a range of over 2,000 miles from hidden submarines off the Russian coast. While there were serious design challenges to building both the right missile and the right warhead for the job, the advantages of a submarine launch missile were apparent to the Navy designers. By the last years of the 1950s, medium range and intercontinental ballistic missiles had eclipsed the once modern strategic bomber. The Navy, in looking for new solutions and modern weapons, resulted in the P6M symbolizing the old school of the early Cold War.
On that note, the P6M was canceled in 1959 to make way for new modern weapons, which now took the form of submarines armed with long-range ballistic missiles. Ironically, the P6M was eventually felled by the same forces which had brought it into existence.