Tsuyoshi Takasawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterA Maritime Self-Defense Force amphibian aircraft has been drawing international attention for its ability to land and take off in rough seas, after its use in the June rescue of a newscaster and a yachtsman during their journey across the Pacific.
The US-2 flying boat could be the first defense equipment to be sold for civilian use and export, in line with a government plan.
According to the turboprop jet engine plane‚Äôs manufacturer, ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd. in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, the US-2 can take off and land in seas with waves as high as three meters, thanks to a special device on the main wing that generates strong lift, as well as a spray suppressor and spray strip on its nose.
The plane‚Äôs maximum range is about 4,500 kilometers, 3.5 times that of an MSDF rescue helicopter, and it can reach a rescue location much faster than a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship.
A successor of the US-1, the US-2 was developed by the Defense Ministry and was first deployed in 2007. Five US-2s are stationed at the MSDF‚Äôs Iwakuni Air Base in the event that MSDF personnel on destroyers or Air-Self Defense Force jetfighters go missing at sea. The about 33-meter-long plane has a maximum speed of 560 kilometers per hour and can carry 11 crew. Each of the planes, which are equipped with a high-performance radar for finding small vessels, as well as rubber boats with engines, costs about ¬•11 billion.
The aircraft‚Äôs prowess was fully demonstrated in a rescue operation in June when newscaster Jiro Shinbo and blind yachtsman Mitsuhiro Iwamoto were found drifting on a lifeboat after their yacht capsized just after setting out for a trans-Pacific trip.
The Defense Ministry received a rescue request from the 2nd Regional Japan Coast Guard Headquarters at Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, for Shinbo and Iwamoto at 10 a.m. on June 21.
Just four hours later, a US-2 from the MSDF Air Rescue Squadron 71 appeared in the sky above the lifeboat about 1,200 kilometers off the Honshu coast of Miyagi Prefecture. At that time, winds of up to 54 kph were blowing and waves as high as four meters were churning up.
The first US-2 withdrew from the site, and a second one landed on the sea shortly before 6 a.m. in an area with lower waves. A rescue crew succeeded in saving the two. About 4.5 hours later, the US-2 arrived at the MSDF Atsugi Air Base.
Looking back on the rescue operation, commanding officer Shinji Nakahara said: ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs difficult to land on the sea even with this plane. It‚Äôs like trying to land on a runway that‚Äôs moving up and down and left to right. When the waves top three meters, they look like a big wall from the cockpit. We could not have carried out this operation without our trust in this plane‚Äôs capabilities.‚Äù
The US-2 has been used for various missions, including transportation of patients in serious condition from remote islands that lack airports, such as the Ogasawara Islands. The planes were used in 22 operations last fiscal year. Including those of its predecessor, the US-1, the rescue planes have been used in about 960 operations so far, in which about 950 people‚Äôs lives were saved, according to the MSDF.
Other countries have expressed great interest in the high level of performance of the US-2. Although the US-2 is considered defense equipment, the government asserts that the aircraft‚Äôs export would not violate Japan‚Äôs three principles for exporting military weapons, the de facto ban on military exports, if defense-related devices such as an identification friend or foe (IFF) system are removed.
The US-2 can be used for many nonmilitary purposes, including monitoring remote islands or thwarting pirates, and can also be used as an amphibious passenger plane, according to government officials. The government is thus optimistic about converting it for civilian use and export. Japan and India agreed to establish a joint working group with the goal of exporting the US-2 to India. Brunei and Thailand are also reportedly interested.
Behind the promotion of the plane as an export is the decline in the domestic defense industry. According to the ministry, the total value of major defense equipment contracts was about ¬•630 billion this fiscal year, compared to about ¬•1.02 trillion in fiscal 1989.
Under such circumstances, at least 103 companies have withdrawn from defense-related businesses or gone bankrupt since 2003. As the US-2 is only delivered to the MSDF, just one is manufactured every two years.
The Defense Ministry is also considering promoting the C-2 transport plane, which is currently under development, for civilian use.
‚ÄúIf the situation goes unchanged, the domestic defense technology infrastructure cannot be maintained. The key is converting the planes into civilian-use vehicles,‚Äù a senior ministry official said. ‚ÄúReinforcing cooperative ties with India and Southeast Asian countries will also have the effect of keeping in check China, which has been aggressively expanding its maritime activities.‚Äù