The author argues that the US-2 Amphibian aircraft that has been the centre-piece of Indo-Japan defence hardware cooperation is not operationally very significant. He analyses why this may have happened and why it needs to be off the table and other more critical areas that help future-readiness should be emphasised. Given that sometime this year, there would be a PM-level summit, his observations are important to note.
For nearly a decade now every upcoming major defence or head of government interaction between Japan and India has been preceded by media reports of the centrality and even urgency of the US-2 aircraft deal.
What is the US-2?
The US-2 is an amphibian aircraft, with a primary role of Search and Rescue (SAR). It is a modern version of an earlier aircraft built by the ShinMaywa company. (Amphibians were widely used in the expanse of the Pacific for maritime reconnaissance and patrol by the US Navy and smaller numbers by the Imperial Japanese Navy until the end of WW II). The US-2 has a better operating envelope with a claimed ability to land and take off in waves of up to 3m height. (https://www.shinmaywa.co.jp/aircraft/english/us2/us2_capability.html).
Subsequently, versions of land-based civilian airliners modified for reconnaissance and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) provided more effective alternatives. Thus, the Lockheed Electra became the ubiquitous P-3 Orion; the Soviet Ilyushin-18 became the Il-38; and the British Comet became the RAF’s Nimrod, to name three.
Why have the Indian Government and the Navy procrastinated over this project for so long? The reasons are somewhat complicated but three statements could be made right away:
- Firstly, it is fortuitous that we did not go in for this aircraft because it was not really an important operational necessity, regardless of the final price of the deal.
- Secondly, there are far more important areas of defence cooperation for future strategic Indo-Pacific confluence(as voiced by PM Shinzo Abe in the Indian Parliament-https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html)than the low-hanging fruit of buying and even manufacturing a marginally useful aircraft like the ShinMaywa US-2.
- Thirdly, while in politics and statecraft the art of the possible is a useful framework for progress, it should not be a governing attribute in force planning and consequential force acquisition.
Then, Why Did the US-2 Acquire so Much “Lift?”
There are several reasons why the amphibian US-2 became centre-stage-almost a leitmotif of Indo-Japanese defence hardware cooperation. By 2010, shared concerns about China’s growing heft pushed security cooperation to somewhere near the forefront. We needed to do something and perhaps be seen to be doing something. At one level, the US-2 provided that opportunity. Given the constitutional restraints and political constraints within Japan, selling the US-2 was doable and almost everything else that is more relevant to combat capabilities much more difficult. After all, SAR is part of what is called Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions that armed forces take in their stride now and then.
More importantly, at a commercial level, there were possibly other drivers for Tokyo’s enthusiasm for this sale. The internal Japanese requirement was for just a few aircraft (probably seven have been built and one lost in an accident in 2015). The under-utilised manufacturing line was a financial drain and a foreign market for it was worth every effort. Related to the issue of numbers, no other country was really taken in by the idea of such an aircraft for SAR as cost-effective. The US-2 could be used in a version for fighting forest fires. However, there have been no takers for this either. Other amphibian aircraft like the Canadian Bombardieror the conventional C-130 versions do most of the fire-fighting work. (In the recent bushfires in Australia, they used requisitioned versions of the Boeing 737 for suppression-https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-15/are-bigger-water-bombers-the-answer-to-bushfire- woes/11705502).
There is no indication, however, of the Australian government being interested in the US-2 for this purpose or SAR.(On the other hand, Japanese involvement in the Australian submarine programme was seriously considered for a period.) It seems more likely that the overall cost-benefit analysis for possible US-2 missions does not seem encouraging considering the alternatives already available.
As an adjunct to Tokyo’s keenness to strike a deal, the lobbying effort made by the company in India was significant as can be seen from the media-space and the highly laudatory articles that appeared extensively all through the decade. While this may have been overkill -and perhaps even counter-productive to an extent – companies are, after all, expected to lobby. What was unusual was that there was very little analysis by the media about the need for these capabilities at such a cost.
Added to this were over-stated claims about the operational envelopes, role change and other combat missions that this aircraft could be used for. Only in some blogs and a maritime specialists’ opinion was there some analysis of the need, roles and characteristics. (https://www.strategicfront.org/forums/threads/shinmaywa-us-2-amphibious-aircraft.3208/; https://www.dailypioneer.com/2016/columnists/us-2i-a-feather-in-navys-cap.html).
Given the constraints of constitutional limitations, and the “Three Principles on Transfer of Defense (sic) Equipment and Technology” one cannot be so sure that any use beyond SAR and fire-fighting would be permissible under end-use agreements (https://www.mofa.go.jp/fp/nsp/page1we_000083.html). Another area for unfounded optimism was in terms of the “transformational offer” of MRO (Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul) and the boost the aviation sector was to receive if the manufacturing line were to be relocated to India and enable exports of the US-2 and greater fillip to even Airbus and Boeing component manufacture.
That re-exports could face constraints under Japanese procedural restraints and political constraints of pacifism have received almost no media attention. These claims, accompanied by assertions of the obduracy of the bureaucracy, the inaction of the PMO despite a presentation having been made to the PM himself, are in a recent book by Bharat Karnad in which more than 14 pages have been given to the US-2. Apart from the over-stated pitch for the US-2, sweeping assertions on the alleged bureaucratic undermining of the processes and even misogynist statements further mar this section titled “The ShinMaywa Tragedy”-(https://www.amazon.in/Staggering-Forward-Narendra-Indias-Ambition-ebook/dp/B07FYLMPLV).
India has had MROs and transfer of manufacturing lines for quite a few military aircraft over the past few decades of Soviet/Russian and West European origin. Due to various sins of omission and commission, the impact on aeronautical development has been actually quite small. Despite the above claims, there is little reason to think of yet another manufacturing line for the US-2, or analogously for that matter, an F-16 line triggering this transformation. For “Make in India” to go beyond platitudes to “Made in India,” we would need to put in the similar effort as did Imperial Japan, something that this writer has researched in an earlier Occasional Paper for the Vivekananda International Foundation with lessons for India (https://www.vifindia.org/occasionalpaper/2016/august/17/make-in-japan-to-made-in-japan-indigenisation-lessons-from-the-imperial-japanese-navy-1880-1941). One couldn’t agree more with a recent observation by the Air Chief, ACM Bhadauria, on the need to go beyond lip-service for Make in India (https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/air-chief-marshal-rakesh-kumar-singh-bhadauria-make-in-india-agenda-aaj-tak-1628917-2019-12-17).
Consequences of Lobbying
A major debilitating consequence of such lobbying is that not only are the low-hanging fruits portrayed to be the tree itself but that negotiating resources which are always limited, are frittered on non-essentials. It seems likely that this marginally needed capability of SAR had a measure of support from some within the Navy and the Coast guard and among veterans and some among policymakers and executors outside of this grouping. At the same time, however, it might also have been equally likely that the US-2 did not pass the cost-benefit analysis within some quarters of the Navy or Coast Guard itself. As a result, in several high-level interactions, the issue has been kept on one of the burners at least. After the December 2015 mention of the US-2 in the PMs’ Joint Statement, specific mention of the US-2 has petered off- (https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/26176/Joint_Statement_on_India_and_Japan_Vision_2025_Special_Strategic_and_Global_Partnership_Working_Together_for_Peace_and_Prosperity_of_the_IndoPacific_R).
The joint press statements after the Defence Ministers’ September 2019 Dialogue and the First 2+2 Dialogue have omitted any specific reference to the US-2 as an area of interest. This is just as well because it enables military-diplomatic negotiating resources to focus on the higher fruits and perhaps even the tree of genuine defence hardware cooperation. The latter goal is a difficult one to achieve. Arguably, it is only with the Russians – and that too in just a few specific areas – that defence purchases have been modestly leveraged in indigenous technology development. In other cases, the best that could be said is that we have ended up buying more fruits from their trees and being under pressure to return to their orchard again!
Planting the Tree at the Next PM Abe and Modi Summit?
At a grand-strategic level, there are several reasons for Japan and India to draw closer. At a military-strategic level, there are several areas where joint research, development and manufacturing and force-structure consonance could help. But, for this, future-readiness via cutting-edge weapons, sensors and even platforms should be what we should strive for. Force-planning needs to be linked to strategies, and force-structuring strategies, in turn, should be made ready. This has to be driven by the art and science of “the necessary” and not overshadowed by the art of “the possible.” The section on bilateral cooperation in the November 2019 Joint Statement after the 2+2 Ministerial Meeting does create significant room for meaningful negotiations.
While there are issues internal to India regarding ecosystems to absorb technology and develop follow-on hardware, procedural issues, and improved manufacturing discipline and efficiencies, there are issues that Tokyo also needs to address. Their political restraints, which include some changes to their Constitution, and treaty obligations and consequences of the significant impact on their own licensed-production are also matters for them to resolve. Other political constraints include pacifism within the society and its impact on their ability to make changes.
Given Japan’s overall industrial prowess, its sustained ranking in innovation indices and its range of currently sophisticated hardware and plans for modernisation, there is great potential for Japan to be a security partner for a few countries, not the least India. For this, it seems likely that their companies will become more adept at bidding and negotiations and that the currently low-proportion of their revenues from the domestic defence business would not stand in the way of their keenness to compete the way others may be.
Through all this, in the interest of the long-term confluence of bilateral partnerships with multi-lateral overlays, India and Japan need to focus on enhancing mutual security postures. Rather than the low-hanging fruits that have been the focus until recently, the Prime Ministerial summit of 2019 that is now postponed to early next year could bring the opportunity to plant the tree of defence cooperation in its wide scope such that the fruits are for both and perhaps other friends to pluck. Moving on from US-2 to “We-Two” would be a good thing.
Rear Admiral Sudarshan Y Shrikhande, IN (Retd)