India has 272 Su-30MKI fighters, most of which were assembled under license in India by Indian aviation manufacturer HAL. The Indian aircraft feature Israeli and French avionics and electronic warfare systems, while China’s Su-30MKK and MK2 borrow limited features from the even more advanced Su-35, another Flanker derivative flying in limited numbers with China’s and Russia’s Air Forces.
The symbolic value of the Indo-Japanese aerial exercises may actually be more potent than the military benefits. India and Japan, along with the United States and Australia, comprise the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), an informal security alliance that’s essentially aimed at containing China. With India on China’s southwest border, Japan on China’s northeast frontier, and the United States, Australia, and Taiwan to the east and south, Beijing may be feeling surrounded. Tighter defense cooperation between India and Japan will only reinforce that feeling.
“This is very clear diplomatic signaling from two Quad partners whose relationship has promised much but has underdelivered up until now,” noted Wallace.
Indian Su-30s in Japan could be the start of something bigger: Indian and Japanese forces sharing each other’s military bases. Wallace points to the aerial exercises as well as the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) signed by India and Japan in September 2020, which allows the armed forces of both nations to share services and supplies.
“The broader strategic significance of this agreement is that it allows the Indian military to access Japanese bases in Japan, but also Japan’s Djibouti base near key Middle East sea lanes,” Wallace said. “In return, it provides the Japanese greater access to major Indian bases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, which sit astride western approaches to the Malacca Strait.”
Historically, Japan has been reluctant to project military power abroad since 1945. That’s partly because of Article 9 of Japan’s U.S.-written postwar constitution, which renounces war and offensive capabilities, though these inhibitions may be fading as Japan confronts growing Chinese power. While operating from Indian bases might be politically sensitive, it would allow Japan to protect vital maritime trade routes — and also to discomfit China.
Still, operationalizing such a strategy may not happen on a consistent basis in the near term, it could occur during a crisis or eventually in support of Japan’s new push to project naval power abroad. Tarapore also doubts India would agree to such joint-basing on a permanent basis. “That’s because of the priority that India places on what it calls ‘strategic autonomy,’ or not entering into any binding security commitments,” Tarapore said. “And you can’t get much more committed than deployed forces to another country’s territory, or having them deployed to yours.”
Regardless, multinational exercises are an invaluable tool for training. U.S. pilots, for example, have benefited greatly from practicing against Indian Su-30s during past Cope India exercises, not just because of exposure to foreign equipment, but also a chance to observe wily foreign tactics. And in Japan’s case, if similar exercises happen to send a signal to potential adversaries such as China, so much the better.