The South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS) maritime conflicts, which have occasionally been likened to “Mexican standoffs,” have seen steady escalation over recent years. Contested oil rigs, newly build islands on coral reefs, sunken boats declared islands, military encounters between air and naval forces, contested freedom of navigation, and aggressive fishermen acting like national militias have become an integral part of the SCS. Further north, unilaterally declared air identification zones, incursions into air and sea spaces around the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai Islands, locked radar systems, and hostile diplomatic language have become part of the ECS conflict.
Both conflicts have seen a rapid rise in political and security tensions – foremost after the recent arbitral tribunal verdict and through the deployment of military, rather than non-military (fishermen) or para-military (coast guards) assets. Nevertheless these tensions are politically manageable, and will likely not escalate into full military conflict, at least for the time being. Despite recent military deployments and aggressive naval action, the focus among all actors, regional (Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia) and international (the United States and Australia, among others) is to maintain a (fragile) peace.
The rise and increasing use of robotic technology could drastically alter that peace, giving rise to an escalation of tension and hostility in which sustained, albeit likely limited, conflict could become a possibility. This relates to two factors: first, the likelihood that so-called unmanned systems will be deployed in such conflict; second and subsequent, the still-obscure role of unmanned systems in these conflicts.
The role and importance of unmanned systems will only further increase in the near future. Given the operational and economic advantages of unmanned systems, it is likely that their current and still-limited deployment will increase quickly over the next few years, as they have unique capabilities and qualities that would make them ideal for use in both the SCS and ECS. They can remain at sea or in the air for extended periods, patrolling thousands of miles of land and sea – ideal for the extended geographical distances of the SCS and ECS. The development, procurement, and operational costs of unmanned systems are significantly less, making them available for regional actors with limited military budgets. From a quantitative perspective, we can expect that the use of unmanned systems in both conflicts will become more widespread. On a qualitative level, they have the endurance suited for large-scale and extended intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) roles. Indeed, medium and high altitude unmanned systems, such as the Global Hawk and China’s Xianglong Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) are able to conduct surveillance of thousands of square miles within a single day. They could provide states with better means and opportunities to enhance their ISR capabilities, thereby enabling better situational awareness by providing enhanced audio and visual ammunition in addition to evidence for media wars over both conflicts.
These advantages, unique abilities, and relatively limited costs make it likely that we will see more unmanned systems on, below, and above the waters of both seas. Indeed, an analysis of regional unmanned system capabilities show that nearly all actors have, to different extents, such capabilities.
China has over the course of the last decade developed a wide array of unmanned systems and has slowly become one of the world’s leaders in unmanned systems development. It is developing and producing sophisticated Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) such as the Dark Sword. In addition, it has already operationally deployed other UAVs such as the CH-4, an UAV that bears a stark resemblance to the MQ-9 Predator. It is also developing and is partly capable of deploying Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs).
Japan possesses the U.S. developed Global Hawk, a long endurance, high altitude UAV, and a number of smaller UAVs. It too is aiming to develop UUVs for maritime security purposes.
Vietnam recently revealed an advanced high-altitude long endurance unmanned system with a range of 2,500 miles that can remain in flight for up to 35 hours. Vietnam’s HS-6L is the product of nearly 10 years of development and will likely be used to maintain constant surveillance on Chinese military deployment and activity in contested SCS waters. Orbiter 2 and Orbiter 3 drones from Israel have likewise also become part of Vietnam’s arsenal.
The Philippines has also turned to unmanned systems in the SCS rivalry. According to Defense World, the Philippine Defense Department’s Modernization Program includes several projects that will result in the supply of surveillance systems, including drones. Interest in acquiring American Predator drones is also largely evident.
Taiwan, too, has developed a wide array of unmanned systems in recent years, among others the Chung Shyang II UAV and a newly developed MALE UAV, which resembles the U.S. MQ-9 Predator.
The United States – the world’s leader in unmanned robotic development – has already deployed its unmanned systems (the Global Hawk) in East Asian airspace. Last April, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, while aboard the aircraft carrier USS Stennis sailing in the South China Sea – an unmistakeable signal for China – stated that the United States had operational UUV capabilities and would deploy them as Washington saw fit. His visit signaled the determination of the United States to stand firmly alongside its ally, the Philippines, in the wake of a stout China posture in the area against its much smaller but equally-determined neighbors.
The deployment of unmanned systems would, however, not need to directly lead to contested waters, airspace, and increasing tension. Thousands of vessels and planes fly and sail through both seas monthly, without leading to violent military conflict. Rather, it is the possible purpose for which these systems could be used that could give rise to increasing tensions and possible violent conflict. Unmanned system are relatively easy to spot, making their military value, beyond ISR roles, relatively limited. However, this obvious visibility makes them ideally suited for political purposes: They are perfect tools for highly visible intrusions into opposing actors’ airspaces or sea zones. Such actions would fit within the strategy or tactics of the infamous salami slicing tactics, or as what James Holmes refers to as small stick diplomacy: Small, minor actions, which are not imminent (major) security threats, but which over time would contest actors’ control, dominance and sovereignty
The utility of unmanned systems, vis-à-vis manned systems, is that the absence of human operators creates advantages for the intruding actor. As no direct human interaction is possible – like communication between pilots within visual range, or crew of naval vessels – the opposing forces are limited to only two possibilities: communication or the use of violence. However, if an actor seeks to communicate, warn, and to deter the intruding systems, it would need to relay this effort by means of an extensive and time consuming process: It would need to go up and through various military and diplomatic channels, after which the entire communicational effort would need go back down to the operators of the intruding unmanned system. This is a lengthy, cumbersome process and one during which an unmanned system could remain in the contested air or sea space. If, however, an actor would decide to not pursue this lengthy process it can only decide to damage or destroy the intruding systems. This would be a significant escalation, as it would be the destruction of military material – a novelty in a region of increasing tension – and could be met with a strong political and possible military response. Within the framework of the public relations and media wars, it would make the defender look like the aggressor.
James Holmes summarized the situation of what to do with intruding unmanned systems well when he described such operations: “In effect they dare you to escalate.” As such, the use of unmanned systems could favor those seeking the offensive, intrusive use of such systems for political purposes. Particularly actors with significant military powers and the upper hand could play this game of dare-to-escalate. They could engage in a game of maritime bluff, where they seek to outmaneuver opposing actors with lesser military capabilities, challenging them to contest their actions and power.
Approaching the SCS and ECS like a game of poker is risky strategy, foremost if what is at stake are not merely chips, but geopolitical powers and human lives. It is therefore essential that all nations involved in both conflicts develop frameworks and understandings on how to deal with the rise of unmanned systems and their possible offensive and assertive use. The South and East China Seas have recently seen their waters become increasingly stormy though they remain sailable. It would be a mistake if the rise and use of unmanned systems turned them into inaccessible waters.
Tobias Burgers is a Doctoral Candidate at the Otto-Suhr-Institute (Free University of Berlin) where he researches the rise and use of cyber, robotic systems in security relations, and the future of military conflict.
Scott Nicholas Romaniuk is a PhD Candidate in International Studies (University of Trento). His research focuses on asymmetric warfare, counterterrorism, international security, and the use of force.