Unmanned Systems May Kill Any Prospect of Peace in East and Southeast Asia

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Unmanned Systems May Kill Any Prospect of Peace in East and Southeast Asia

It is only a matter of time before drones are put to use in Asia’s maritime conflicts.

Unmanned Systems May Kill Any Prospect of Peace in East and Southeast Asia
Credit: U.S. Air Force

In our July 2016 article, “Unmanned Systems and Manned Conflict in East Asia, we presented the argument that there is a serious risk of the potential (mis)use of military unmanned systems in maritime conflicts in East Asia and Southeast Asia (SEA). This risk has not diminished.

In the wake of the recent U.S. elections, and given the absence of support and the absence of any possible deterrence by the United States, in which the use of unmanned systems could play a fundamental role, regional actors are more likely to pursue a risk-prone approach to security interests in the regions. It is feasible that China, for example, given recent increasing tensions over the East China Sea, might seek to further contest Japan’s claims of sovereignty by deploying swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), making multiple small intrusions into Japanese air and sea space around the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai islands.

This option could be as effective as using their manned counterparts, the fishermen-turned-naval militia – effectively deployed in the South China Sea (SCS) – and would presumably carry a much reduced political, economic, and diplomatic cost. Likewise, a possible scenario could arise in which the United States Navy (USN) through the use of USVs – that is, seafaring drones – could conduct permanent Freedom of Navigation (FoN) operations in the South China Sea, thereby continuously contesting China’s claims, presence, and power. In either scenario, one could count on rising tensions between competing and forceful states, giving rise to a possible escalation of violence.

With the unmanned revolution quickly spreading, it is only a matter of time before other actors involved in the region’s maritime conflicts have similar unmanned capabilities and likewise could use them.

In light of the multitude of possible scenarios, it is critical to keep in mind that no regional framework for the military use of unmanned systems is in place to prevent such scenarios and in order to ensure that, at the very least, the fragile peace and security balance in East Asia’s seas, including the SCS, is maintained. The potential misuse of unmanned systems exists in part due to a lack of acceptance of norms and rules centering on UAVs. However, history has shown that disturbance of the military balance, as a result of the introduction of new technologies and their subsequent applications, presents significant risks for all states involved, including a range of unintended consequences. Likewise, history exemplifies how states, and opposing factions (i.e., those during the Cold War) are indeed capable of agreeing upon a set of rules and norms on acceptable uses of new technologies.

Still, this has not taken place in East Asia and to date there are no such efforts to establish a set of rules or guidelines. Rather, the United States and its perpetual drone campaigns in many regions of the world have established a potent precedent for turning to drones as a first-response option to asymmetric and other threats to national security interests at home and overseas.

As in prior cases embedded within the Cold War context, efforts to move toward the creation of a rules system would be voluntary, fully-dependent upon the compliance of regional actors. Given the convergence of trajectories in the region, specifically China and the United States, the necessity of ensuring that robotic systems would not be misused for political purposes cannot be discounted. The use of unmanned systems over territory forbidden by states like China and Malaysia shows that a fragile peace is at risk by the unilateral use of unmanned systems by more than one or two states.

States moving toward the use of aerial, surface, and even undersea drones like China (for instance, for surveillance purposes) increasingly accommodate a much broader range of potential incidents. Drone usage on all three or any one of these fronts fosters a great deal of mistrust between multiple actors in a small region. They also present sizable obstacles to the maintenance of existing healthy military relationships.

When a state’s air or sea space is intruded, manned systems are used to establish contact. After contact is made, however, it becomes immensely challenging to establish a connection between an unmanned intruder and manned units scrambled to meet that intruder. The risk associated with unmanned intrusions soars even higher when unmanned systems are used to intercept unmanned intruders. As such, communication has to go through military channels, via the foreign ministry to the respective adversary foreign ministry, and then to the respective ministry of defense until the unit responsible is reached – a timely predominantly benefiting the intruding state.

To date, the default option for intruding unmanned systems is to simply shoot them down. This was the response of Japan’s former defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, who recently reacted to the real prospect of China deploying aerial drones in Japan’s airspace. This is precisely the type of response that cultivates consternation about the escalation of violence with the potential of leading to a hot conflict. Such a conflict could then pull other actors into it, including the United States in defense of Japan, with subsequent mobilizations by China’s neighbors. Indeed, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, approved a plan for Japan’s Self-Defense Force to attack drones invading Japanese airspace. China, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, among other states in the area, could follow suit.

There is currently a severe lack of research and development in the area of effectively and constructively countering the intrusion of unmanned systems in East Asia and Southeast Asia. The intrusion of unmanned systems into a state’s airspace is popularly perceived of as an act of war. Other than doing nothing, the next best course of action for a state is to turn to violence and destructive means – an avenue of response devoid of possible techniques to take over or steer away the unmanned system like spoofing the global positioning system (GPS) signal or other electronic defense measures such as taking over the signal.

Though such moves could be construed as hostile, non-violent responses are more likely to lay a path away from outright conflict and the establishment of rules for future engagements. As Mark J. Valencia, adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China recently stated, “doing nothing means that where the text of a governing treaty leaves matters ambiguous or unresolved, the practice of states will become particularly important in determining the interpretation of the treaty’s provisions.”

Tobias J. 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 N. 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.