Originally Published 2016-11-29 11:22:33 Published on Nov 29, 2016
The jury is still out on the likely purchase of the much talked of ShinMaywa US 2i — the Japanese amphibious airplane by India for Navy
US-2i -- Is it really a feather in Navy's cap?

It is well known that most big ticket purchases of defence equipment have strategic compulsions and interests behind them — rather than mere technical feasibility. The jury is still out on the likely purchase of the much talked of ShinMaywa US 2i — the Japanese amphibious airplane by India.

It has often been stated that one of the primary reasons for showing interest in its purchase, has been the rising trajectory of bilateral relations between New Delhi and Tokyo. And, the other strategic reason has been to offset the Chinese announcement of having built the world’s largest  flying boat, known as AG-600 by the State owned-the Aviation Industry Corporation of China.

The question, of course, that begs an answer is: Do these very expensive, sophisticated aircraft really suit our requirements, and hence, do they possess a high utility factor or are they mere ‘trophy’ defence platforms nice to have but, not a real necessity?

To begin with, India was offered these aircraft by the Government of Japan during the four day visit of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in May 2013, though the discussions had been going on for a long time. It was widely expected that the deal for its purchase would be finally sealed during the recent November 2016 visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan.

However, belying the expectations, a statement was issued after the Tokyo summit which stated, “Both sides directed the Joint Working Group to accelerate progress in the discussions and preparations for a roadmap for the development of the Indian aircraft industry through US-2i amphibian aircraft cooperation, including the transfer of the aircraft, and its technology to India”.

There is little doubt that such a sale would enhance the defence relations between India and Japan. More importantly, it would significantly boost the Japanese arms industry as it gingerly moves into an era of global competition in the wake of Tokyo overturning its 1964 ban on export of arms in 2014.

Even though, its aim is to only sell limited arms to friends and allied countries, the move in generic terms, would also open these companies to the unaccustomed vagaries of arms dealings around the world. It is a tactical move.

The competition in the global arms market is cut-throat, and decisions are often based on extraneous considerations. At times, decisions are taken in an opaque manner.

The media hype associated with the purchase of US-2 has forwarded the argument that the deal would re-define the power equations, partnerships and collaborations in Asia.

But it is doubtful if this singular platform, and the meagre numbers that are likely to be purchased 12-15 (of which half will be for the Indian Coast Guard and the other half for the Indian Navy), can serve as a game-changer of sorts.

Another common point of assertion has been that, this purported sale could well form the basis of similar arms sales between India and Japan in the future.

However, contrary evidence suggests that Japan has repeatedly refused India’s request for selling the sophisticated Soryu class of submarines for our advanced submarine programme, the P-75I.

The other benefits of the deal for India are of technological in nature. “The US-2i will be manufactured by the private sector, and final assembly and integration will take place in India”, an official involved in the process has stated.

This strategy will exclude state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics from any licensed production deal. Prima facie it supports the Make in India initiative. However, it is unlikely that the entire assembly line along with technology, will be transferred.

Even if, hypothetically, this were to be the case, will Indian agencies (the Navy and the Indian Coast Guard) really want more of such expensive aircraft just for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) or surveillance — the purported role of these aircraft? Or, will India be able to export these aircraft, which we would manufacture here in competition with the original manufacturers?

Apart from the above, the price factor has been a very contentious issue. These aircraft — even though fitted with the state-of-the-art equipment and possessing impressive specifications — are very expensive.

The entire programme cost for India is estimated at around three billion dollars across a seven-years period, with an offset component worth $900 million. The US-2i is estimated to have a unit cost of $90-$115 million, depending on the configuration.

This was an effort to sweeten the deal when “Japan has offered a price concession of more than 10 per cent per aircraft from $133 million per aircraft to around $113 million, and the $1.35 billion Government to Government deal for US-2i amphibious”, as cited in certain media reports.

Most importantly, the role that the aircraft is supposed to fulfil is mainly for civilian purposes, mainly HADR. It has been stated that these aircraft would be used in our island territories, mainly for Andaman & Nicobar Islands, and Lakshadweep Islands, in places where no regular landing strips exist.

In practical terms, there is a likelihood that India would have the option to rework the aircraft to restore its military purpose or for positioning troops (about 20 per aircraft) at short notice. We have to wait and see if such revamp happens.But, again, these roles are being currently done by ships and aircraft based in these islands quite successfully. In any case, positioning of larger number of troops can only be done by ship, while smaller numbers can also be transferred by helicopters or by para-dropping.

For surveillance purposes, the Indian Navy already has far more capable and dedicated maritime surveillance aircraft like Tu-142s and P-8I. Hence, the role of US-2i in the Indian context is rather limited. In an overall cost-benefit analysis, it can be stated that despite the strategic, and the technological angle, these platforms are definitely nice to have, but they are not an immediate necessity for operations for a resource-constrained country like ours.

This commentary originally appeared in The Pioneer.

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