Amphibian aircraft combine the capabilities of rapid surveillance and prompt response, whether for relief or arrest or intervention, in a single platform
World War II saw the induction of the largest flying boat in history. The ‘Martin MARS’ amphibians were introduced to augment wartime cargo and troop carrying capacity. The MARS flew extensively with the United States Navy to transport more than three million pounds of cargo and troops with more than 78 round trips between San Francisco Bay and Honolulu providing yeoman service to the Allied ‘Island Hopping’ campaign in the Pacific.
The Indian Navy (IN), too, is no stranger to amphibious aircraft. Naval aviation, which formally took birth at Kochi on May 11, 1953, operated the Shorts Sealand amphibious aircraft, as its first Indian naval aircraft. However, the capability of operating such aircraft was lost only in the 1960s when IN inducted conventional aircraft. With the advent of modern technology in amphibious aircraft, it is only natural that IN has now sought to re-acquire this unique capability, to truly realise its ‘Blue Water’ capability.
Amphibian Aircraft Capabilities
Amphibian aircraft combine the capabilities of rapid surveillance and prompt response, whether for relief or arrest or intervention, in a single platform. Such a capability is not available on any other platform. Unlike helicopters and aircraft, amphibious aircraft can land at the location and enforce both the will and the law of the nation and thus have been a platform of choice for many navies. Unlike ships, amphibious aircraft can reach the target location far faster than ships can thereby ensuring early intervention and preventing escalation of a precipitous incident at sea or close ashore. This includes the ability of even shore-based military and political authorities to undertake a firsthand evaluation of a situation at sea which may have international ramifications if left to intensify without control. No other aerial platform has such capability.
The operational profile of an amphibian aircraft comprise of a land-, lake-, riverbased launch with cargo and personnel commensurate embarked for the mission at hand, rapid transit to the target area in mid ocean or close ashore/inland a distant water body, surveillance, data gathering and analysis during a stand-off ultra-low level and low speed loiter, alighting on the water for executing the maritime mission and then either transit to another destination or return to the parent launch facility.
Operational and strategic roles
In the context of a maritime nation like India, use of an amphibian aircraft finds many operational and strategic roles. Considering the large expanse of island territories of India, the growth, connectivity and security of the Island territories (A&N Islands and Lakshadweep) of the nation are becoming increasingly important. This had resulted in establishment of the first triservices command in Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2001 with an aim to safeguard India’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia and the Strait of Malacca by increasing rapid deployment of military assets in the region. The 750-km-long Andaman and Nicobar archipelago comprise a chain of 572 islands, and is located about 1,200 km from mainland India, but is merely 90 km from Indonesia and 50 km from Myanmar. Security and support of these Island territories of India have also gained strategic importance so as to counter any threat from China, which was reported to have set up surveillance posts in Myanmar’s Coco Islands, 40 km off the northern tip of the Andaman.
The need to curb piracy, drug and gun trafficking, poaching and illegal immigration in the region and especially in the Malacca Strait is a matter of international concern. All such strategic and security concerns of the nation are adequately addressed by a capable modern amphibian aircraft. Additionally, most of these island territories have virtually no scope for runway construction and consequently the inhabitants are denied simple medical and modern amenities. Requiring neither runway nor other airfield facilities modern amphibious aircraft can safely land within a few metres from the coast or islands and relief material and teams can be ferried ashore through integral boats requiring no logistic support from the shore.
Amphibian aircraft plays a crucial role in Long Range Fleet Support operations. Spares, tools and equipment can be ferried to a ship or submarine or shipborne aircraft at sea to effect repairs. These aircraft can also undertake crew change at mid sea without recourse to immigration and customs laws. Thus, operational availability of units at sea are enhanced manifold with the induction of a capable amphibian aircraft. For long-range operations in a marine environment the amphibian aircraft may be not only the best but also the only viable option.
Recovery at Sea
In addition, from an operational perspective and of particular relevance to navies that operate long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMR) such as the P8I of the Indian Navy and AWACS aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF), or deck based MiG-29K, or shore based maritime interdiction aircraft such as the MiG-29 or Su-30 or the Jaguar, is in the choice of the most suitable platform that can conduct a near allweather high speed rescue operation for the entire crew of a ditched aircraft. The aircraft is more easily replaceable than its highly trained aircrew. The rescue of a crew is faster and surer with amphibian aircraft than using ships or even helicopters. Such an assurance of recovery at sea builds huge confidence and markedly improves operational performance of the aircrew.
ShinMaywa’s US-2 Exceeds Expectations
In addition to the roles discussed, the US-2 could be employed effectively for many other multifarious maritime missions such as:
Therefore, in keeping with the strategic and operational requirements and following the LTIPP, Indian Navy issued the request for information (RFI) for amphibian aircraft in 2011. ShinMaywa Industries Ltd, Japan responded to the RFI offering the US-2 Amphibian aircraft. The US-2 and its variants has been in active service with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force since 1976. A technology scan of available amphibian aircraft clearly shows that the US-2 alone meets and in many cases exceeds these operational requirements. With an ability to operate in sea state 5, landing/take-off distances at about 300 m, transit speeds in excess of 550 kmph and a range of 4,500 km there is no other aircraft in its class. Combined with the world’s only Boundary layer control system on a cargo and transport aircraft, spray suppression features, marinised turboprop engines, glass cockpit, pressurised cabins and a highly sophisticated surveillance and communication suite the US-2 stands out as a product of renowned Japanese technology. With an accident free record it is testimony to high quality and sound design. The US-2 has proven credentials of successful operations in sea state 5 with surrounding wave height of 4 m and a wind velocity of about 40 kts at a distance of about 1,200 km from mainland Japan.
In September 2013, based on the directives of the summit meeting held between the two Prime Ministers of India and Japan in May 2013, a Joint Working Group (JWG) was established to explore modalities for cooperation on the US-2 aircraft. The JWG has already met thrice. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in their Joint Summit Statement of September 1, 2014, have now exhorted the JWG to «accelerate their discussions» on the cooperation in US-2 and its technology. As per the fact sheet later circulated by the Ministry of External Foreign Affairs, Japan the US-2 cooperation seeks to concurrently advance the aeronautics industry including the final assembly and manufacture of the US-2, its maintenance, repair and overhaul and parts manufacturing in India. The US-2, it is learnt, may also be permitted to be exported to third countries under mutual agreement. It is evident that the cooperation on the US-2, between India and Japan is at the international level of immense diplomatic and strategic import, whilst at the domestic level the downstream benefits are across the military, technological, economic and social sectors.
This is the first time ever that any country has offered to develop an aeronautics industry in the private sector in India through a well targeted partnership and therefore this programme is completely aligned with Prime Minister Modi’s Make in India initiative and for realising a worldclass aeronautics and aircraft manufacturing ecosystem within the nation. Partnering with Japan for cooperation on the US-2 aircraft is of immense strategic value to India. The technological, economic and social benefits of this partnership are indeed a path to progress, prosperity and peace in the region.