A Japanese amphibious aircraft could potentially help US security missions in the Pacific. But first, the US needs to take a careful look at the aircraft before it integrates it into military plans and programs.

Japan’s US-2 amphibious seaplane is a large aircraft that can carry out long-range missions, land and take off from the sea and carry out search and rescue missions. For strategic use, it is superior to the Marine Corps’ Bell-Boeing vertical takeoff MV-22 Osprey because of its sea landing ability and  range. The US-2 is such an intriguing aircraft that China appears to have copied many features with its upcoming AVIC AG600, which has not yet been deployed.

In the United States, seaplanes have all but disappeared from military operations, but there are compelling reasons that the US should consider adopting the US-2.

The aircraft is built by the Japanese industrial conglomerate Shinmaywa, which produces industrial machinery, special purpose trucks and aircraft.  Prior to the US-2, Shinmaywa built six US-1s and 14 US-1A aircraft. These aircraft were based on the earlier PS-1 but had the added ability for true sea landing and take-off and were capable of carrying out firefighting missions using sea water in a scoop-and-drop system, rather like the Beriev Be-200 or the smaller Bombardier Cl-215.

Rescue missions

The US-1A’s first rescue was a Greek vessel in 1976. Between that time and 1999, US-1As had been used in more than 500 rescues, saving 550 lives. Including the US-2, Japan has carried out more than 1,000 maritime rescues on the high seas.

Today, Japan’s fleet of US-2s are operated by Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces by the 31st Fleet Air Wing (71st Air Force, 71st Flight Squadron) at Iwakuni air base and Atsugi airbase. There are four US-2 aircraft in service and three more scheduled for delivery.

The US-2 is a four-engine turboprop featuring Allison-Rolls Royce AE-2100 engines and Dowty composite propellers, the same engines and propellers that are used on the Lockheed C-130J and Italy’s C-27J, now used by the US Coast Guard. The US-2 has a pressurized cabin, “glass” cockpit, fly by wire and other up-to-date avionics.

The aircraft features short take-off and landing (STOL) and can land and take off in rough seas, making it an ideal aircraft for sea rescue. Its range is close to 3,000 miles, or 4,800 kilometers, compared with the MV-22, which has a range of 1,000 miles at most. Significantly, the MV-22 cannot land on water.

Among other attributes, the US-2 can be used to ferry special mission forces, drop small RIB craft into the water for commando operations and carry out surveillance missions including anti-submarine warfare operations.

But by far the most important value of the US-2 is that it does not need long runways for take-off or landing. It can operate from seaports equipped with simple cement aprons to accommodate refueling and support activities. In the Pacific, where there are thousands of islands, this feature is extremely attractive, particularly in light of China’s activities in the South China Sea and Ryukyu Islands arc area, especially in and around Okinawa.

Unfortunately, Japan’s US-2 fleet is quite small, providing the US with little exposure to the aircraft. At the end of May, Marine Corps pilots had their first opportunity to fly in the plane during a succession of take-off and landing operations at sea, originating from the Iwakuni air base. The US-2 has never been in the United States and never formally tested by the Defense Department.

Militarized islands

The US-2 has a range of capabilities that should be of interest to the United States, as American decision-makers struggle to evolve a strategy on how to deal with an increasingly aggressive China.

China is carrying out air and sea operations, and building bases on what it calls “its” First Island Chain, which includes many now-militarized islands in the South China Sea.

It also threatens Taiwan, which China claims as its “province.” Chinese ships, including its new aircraft carrier, long-range bombers and fighter aircraft, have been trying to threaten Taiwan and force them to acknowledge China’s sovereignty. There have also been serious challenges around Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands, of which Okinawa is a part, including Chinese air and sea operations and political claims by China to sovereignty over Okinawa.

In this theatre, the US-2 has a role to play supporting air operations by Japan, the United States and Taiwan. What is missing are the arrangements needed to coordinate emergency response operations and improve information sharing. Taiwan also needs to be more formally integrated into US Pacific strategic operations.

Above all the US needs to learn about the US-2.

The United States has some near- and mid-term options regarding the US-2. To begin with, the US has to familiarize itself with the aircraft and develop plans to use it by working directly with Japan’s Self Defense Forces.

However, Japan has only limited numbers of the US-2 and its first priority is to provide protection around its immediate vicinity. For operations farther away, such as the South China Sea, it may be a stretch for Japan to provide assistance, and it could ruffle political feathers in Japan. One way around that would be for the United States to either buy or lease US-2 aircraft.

Among other things. the US-2 could help save American and allied lives, especially as the US tempo of Pacific operations intensifies and focuses on an even broader area of operations. The latest shift, changing the name of the US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command, indicates the coming direction of the Defense Department as it bolsters its policy of a “free and open rules-based international order” for the Pacific region.

The return of amphibious aircraft in US service might not be too far away.