Drones on the Frontlines of the South China Sea

Chinese UAV imagery of Senkakus
More than one war has started over the control of a group of isolated rocks in the middle of the ocean.  Tensions over disputed East China Sea islands called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan could someday precipitate skirmishes on or over the sea, if not a larger conflict.  It may very well possible that the first shots fired in any sort of combat over these islands will involve growing number of maritime unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying in the area.  Late in 2013, China established an air defense zone (ADIZ) over portions of the East China Sea.  Further south, near the disputed Spratlys, similar issues exists. To help enforce their claims over these areas, China is building a string of 11 drone bases along its coast by 2015.

China has operated what is likely a variant of the S-100 rotary wing UAV off PLA(N) ships. China's Coast Guard, which is really the PRC's first line of defense in the islands kerfuffle (or aggression, depending on one's perspective), recently ordered the APID 60 UAS for shipboard use.

In its recent report on China's naval capabilities, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence specifically cites UAVs as one of China's most valuable intelligence assets:
The PLA(N) will probably emerge as one of China’s most prolific UAV users, employing UAVs to supplement manned ISR aircraft as well as to aid targeting for land-, ship-, and other air-launched weapons systems. UAVs will probably become one of the PLA(N)’s most valuable ISR assets. They are ideally suited for this mission set because of their long loiter time, slow cruising speed, and ability to provide near real-time information through the use of a variety of onboard sensors. In the near term, the PLA(N) may use strategic UAVs such as the BZK-005 or the Soaring Dragon to monitor the surrounding maritime environment. 
Probable Chinese UAV flight pattern - 2013
China may also be flying the Haiyao-1 over disputed islands.  In September 2013, the Japanese scrambled fighter aircraft over the East China Sea in response to what was likely a Chinese drone incursion.

  Other navies in the Pacific region are building up their unmanned surveillance inventories. Japan announced the acquisition of a still unknown type of surveillance drones to operate around its island chains.  Reportedly the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force is considering acquisition of a fleet of RQ-21 "Blackjack" small tactical UAVs to operate from its destroyers. Australia has expressed an interested in buying up to seven high altitude Triton UAVs and associated equipment for $2.5 Billion.  The United States currently bases RQ-4 Global Hawks in the region and eventually will station Tritons at Guam's Andersen Air Force Base. Even Taiwan, which calls the disputed islands Diaoyutai, has begun to experiment with military UAVs. Although none of the above-mentioned UAVs are armed, they could potentially be used for offensive purposes at some point.

The necessity to counter the increasing number of drones in the region is not lost on the region's powers. The Chinese announced that they have developed a laser weapon which has the ability to knock a UAV down at ranges out to 2 kilometers within a five seconds.  Paul Scharre has discussed the implications of drone-on-drone warfare that could result from all of these aircraft operating together. He asks, if a drone is shot-down, does that constitute an act of war? If history is any indication, a skirmish involving drones will likely not escalate into a more widespread conflict.  Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union made a number of attempts -- some successful -- to down U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.  Although these incidents resulted in diplomatic rows, they did not escalate militarily.  More recently, in 2001, the PRC forced a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane down on Hainan Island and temporarily "detained" the aircraft's crew.  

Naval analyst Jon Solomon also weighed in on the escalatory nature of unmanned aircraft. "I would submit that if war gaming and historical case study analysis find that the crisis stability risks of attacks against unmanned scouts would be tolerable, and if the resulting legitimization of equivalent attacks against U.S. unmanned systems would be acceptable, then it might be worthwhile for American diplomacy to advance unmanned scout neutralization (or destruction if the scout is outside the opponent’s internationally-recognized sovereign boundaries) as an international norm."

In the end, the decision to escalate a skirmish or not is generally made by pilots on the scene or their nearby commanders.  In a world in which drones are often controlled remotely from operators thousands of miles away, will the same calculus hold true?


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