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Commentary: Was tough talk on South China Sea to boost US export of drones to Southeast Asia?

The US’ decision to equip Southeast Asian countries with the ScanEagle drones demonstrate the US’s commitment to the security to its allies and partners in the region, says Defense News’ Mike Yeo.

Commentary: Was tough talk on South China Sea to boost US export of drones to Southeast Asia?

US ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are displayed at a hangar before a transfer from the US to the Philippine Air Force at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay city, Metro Manila, Philippines, on Mar 13, 2018. (REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)

KUALA LUMPUR: The recent announcement by the United States that several Southeast Asian partner nations will receive unmanned surveillance drones has garnered some interest, particularly given the deterioration in relations between the US and China over security and trade issues. 

The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced last week that Insitu Inc, a wholly-owned subsidiary of aerospace giant Boeing, had been awarded a US$47 million contract for 34 ScanEagle drones to Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. 

The US government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) contract also provides for support to recipients, which includes spare payloads, spare and repair parts, support equipment, tools, training, technical services, and field service representatives, with work expected to be completed in 2022.

The drones will be provided to these countries using funds from the US government, although there are conflicting reports on whether these come under the DoD’s capacity building programme for partner nations or from the funding under the maritime security initiative announced by the US in 2015.


The ScanEagle is an unarmed drone used for surveillance and intelligence gathering roles. The current model, the ScanEagle 2, which has a maximum take-off weight of 26kg, a length of 1.71m and wingspan of 3.11m, is classified as a small unmanned aircraft system in industry parlance. 

Although unarmed, it can carry a 5kg surveillance payload, comprising of electro-optic, infrared, and high-resolution video cameras that enable the operator to track stationary and moving targets.

Performance-wise, the drone cruises at a relatively modest cruise speed of 93 to 111 kmh and has a maximum operating altitude of just below 6km although it has an ability to stay in the air for up to 18 hours. 

Manufacturer Insitu has developed a pneumatic catapult unit to launch the ScanEagle,. At the end of a mission, the drone is recovered by a Skyhook system developed by the manufacturer whereby a wing-mounted hook catches onto a vertically strung cable. 

The six ScanEagle drones are the latest US military assistance to the Philippines. (Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe)

The ScanEagle has been a popular choice, being operated by militaries all across the globe, with Australia, Lithuania, Pakistan and the United Kingdom among its users. It is also in use by the Republic of Singapore Navy, which has launched from a variety of ships including its missile corvettes. 


The fact that all the countries in the recipient list in the latest announcement have interests in the South China Sea, with Indonesia being the only country that does not claim ownership of any of the islands, features and rocks of the disputed Spratly or Paracels groups, has not escaped notice.

READ: The sands in the South China Sea dispute may be shifting, a commentary

Also significant was the fact that this was the time American equipment with an overt military purpose will be transferred to Vietnam since an American arms embargo, in place since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, was fully lifted in 2016. 

It was previously announced that Vietnam will receive some US-built patrol boats, but these unarmed vessels were earmarked for the coast guard and not the military.

The drones will assist the recipient countries in improving Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) over their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. The International Maritime Organisation defines MDA as the effective understanding of all areas “on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterway” that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of a country.

An aerial view of China occupied Subi Reef at Spratly Islands in disputed South China Sea on Apr 21, 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Francis Malasig)

With a lot having already been written about the importance of maritime-based commerce and activities like fishing to regional economies, it goes without saying how important MDA is to authorities in these littoral states. 

However, the more cynical might be inclined to think of this as the latest example of American assertiveness in the region, particularly given ongoing US-China tensions, and the Trump Administration’s announced intentions to boost US weapons exports. 

But this would be a rather simplistic and not-too-accurate way of seeing things. While there would be quite a lot of capabilities one would need to bring to an outright confrontation involving the dispute in the South China Sea or an assertion of presence there, given China’s increasingly powerful military, ScanEagles will not be high on that list. 

READ: The US, China, a security dilemma and a way out in Singapore, a commentary

In fact, it would be a risky proposition to use them against any reasonably well-equipped opponent given its modest performance specifications which would leave it vulnerable to air defences. 


Indeed, there are a whole host of MDA challenges that recipient nations have to contend with, in not just the South China Sea but also the Straits of Malacca, Sulu Sea and beyond. 

The two main issues that have been in the headlines are terrorism in southern Philippines and piracy in the Straits of Malacca, Straits of Singapore and South China Sea, as well as other maritime challenges Southeast Asia littoral states need to confront including illegal fishing, human trafficking, fuel theft, smuggling and other transnational crime. 

The Royal Thai Navy captured five illegal fishing boats and arrested 43 Vietnamese fishermen after a 12-hour operation in April 2015. (Photo: CNA) A Thai patrol boat docking a fishing vessel for the Royal Thai Navy to move in and clear the area. (Photo: Kittiphum Sringammuang)

Given that these nations have navies and coast guards that are at best, stretched and at worst, severely under-resourced, having a drone that can stay aloft for 18 hours is a definite advantage in combating these myriad maritime challenges. 

Even a small number of ScanEagles can make outsized contribution to improving the MDA capabilities of these littoral states. 

The small operating footprint of the ScanEagle is another key advantage, as it means that the drone can be operated from any patch of open space or from onboard a ship, negating the need for a runway. 

Operating at that altitude also means its sensors can see farther than that of a ship sailing on the water’s surface, improving the available coverage area. 

The capabilities of these modern optical sensors were demonstrated clearly during last week’s near-miss between a Russian and US warship in the Philippine Sea, when the US navy released a number of still photographs of the encounter that was grabbed from a video shot from a sensor mounted onboard an aircraft. 

The photos were clear enough to easily identify the ships, even though data on the image showed that it was shot from a 3.35km altitude and 37km away. While the sensors mounted on the ScanEagles are likely to be of more modest capabilities, they would still nevertheless be useful for this intended purpose. 

READ: Russia floods Southeast Asia with arms, a commentary

From a strategic perspective, the decision to equip Southeast Asian recipient nations with the ScanEagles will also serve to demonstrate that the US remains committed to the security to its allies and partners in the region by taking a relatively inexpensive measure to make a difference in a vital area, without looking like it was a move designed to antagonise China.  

Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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