Since President Donald Trump and his team assumed office, the administration has assumed a strong position toward security in the South China Sea (SCS). Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, in his Senate confirmation hearing, signaled tough U.S. intentions in the broader SCS dispute. Responding to U.S. perceptions about China’s role and intentions, he noted the United States would ensure that the SCS would not fall under the authority of China, that it would remain open, free, and accessible to all, and that the region would not be (further) militarized. Trump’s “Rasputin,” Steve Bannon, went further when he, prior to becoming chief strategist, stated that the United States would go to war with China over the SCS.
It remains to be seen to what extent Bannon’s words will impact policy, but such statements suggest that the United States is on a more confrontational course with China over the SCS than in previous years. Senior leaders at U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) echoed the Trump administration’s vehement words. Overall, there’s good reason to expect that the U.S. armed forces will become increasingly active in the SCS. Occasional Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations could become more frequent, with more, and possibly even larger ships and more powerful involved.
In a prior article, we presented the argument that China could be expected to increase its unmanned presence in the SCS and use these systems to its advantage. However, there are two sides to this unmanned coin: Like China, the U.S. armed forces could opt to deploy unmanned systems in the region. So-called Little Grey (Un)Men could become a Chinese and an American tactic. The United States may turn to the development of larger unmanned systems – in line with Trump’s mantra: “Bigger, Better, and Stronger.”
Such an effort ought to start with UAVs. These systems would be ideal to show an extended presence in the SCS. They are capable of enabling close surveillance of Chinese activities in the region. These intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities would be very useful beyond the sole military aim of data collection because the conflict can also be viewed as a public relations battle between China and the United States. To wider Western audiences, the SCS is a distant, often overlooked affair, occasionally receiving attention by major media outlets. This relates partly to the absence of visual images. UAVs, with advanced camera and recording capabilities, would enable states like the United States to share images of Chinese activity – or that of other governments – in the SCS. This even entails the type of equipment a potentially hostile government has built and is now sailing or flying. This would go a long way in putting the SCS on the larger global news map. Systems such as the Global Hawk, or its maritime brother, the MQ-4C Triton, would be ideally suited for this. They have the long endurance and sophisticated ISR capabilities for such a role.
Beyond the use of UAVs, the use of unmanned sailing systems, unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), are also factored into the SCS security scenario. The development and operational use of such systems have far to go in catching-up with their flying counterparts; however, the United States will have the means to deploy such systems as DARPA Sea Hunter, which would be ideally suited for such purposes, in the coming years. Capable of operating 70 days without direct human interference, the Sea Hunter would be able to patrol the SCS and offer uninterrupted coverage of the region. The Sea Hunter’s operational costs are drastically lower than its manned counterparts – even though limiting defense spending does not seem to be of principal concern for the Trump administration. The use of larger systems would set a clear political signal and would indicate to the Chinese leadership that the United States is serious about its SCS commitment. However, it also runs the risk of entering into a security dilemma in the region, accompanied by the possible build-up of arms and a race to militarize the region further.
The biggest advantage of using unmanned systems in the SCS relates, however, to their distinctive nature: the direct absence of human operators. This means that the United States would not need to fear another P-3 Hainan incident — in 2001 a Chinese jet collided with a P-3 Orion plane, forcing it to land in China and resulting in a diplomatic scandal. A similar scenario could be avoided through the use of unmanned systems due to their obvious lack of direct human operation. And the likelihood that another P-3 Hainan collision incident reoccurs should be taken seriously. Already on a few occasions, Chinese planes have come (too) close to American airplanes patrolling the region, showing Chinese discontent with American actions. Now imagine that China is offended by (another) 140 character digital diplomatic offensive. This time the Chinese government could decide to set firm example and let an airplane crash, just like in 2001.
This advantage creates a framework for deployment in which the political risks are considerably less than in cases involving their “manned” counterparts. In turn, this allows unmanned systems to be used in more assertive ways than systems involving human operation on location. As we described in our prior article, unmarked and unmanned systems are ideal for hybrid warfare. Much like China, the United States has begun to swarm Chinese ships and patrol in larger numbers, without undertaking or engaging in offensive activity. As Sydney Freedberg Jr. notes, unmanned systems are appropriate mechanisms for high-risk missions – the kind of missions in which the United State Navy (USN) could engage in the SCS.
There might be additional benefits for the USN and the United States Air Force (USAF) as well. The SCS could become a testing ground for the operational use of new and emerging unmanned systems, ranging from unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) to USVs and UAVs. With many such systems under development and gradually becoming operational, there is an extended need to test these systems in operational use not only to learn and better understand the value of unmanned systems and their capabilities, but also to assess the sort of impact they would have on tactics and larger strategies. The likelihood of USVs and UUVS assuming greater importance within the USN is almost a certainty. With the Trump government willing to expand the number of warships in the USN – a goal that has received broad support in the U.S. government – a share of these new systems will likely be unmanned. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), in a recent report, argued for the expansion of the unmanned fleet, with 40 additional, larger, ocean capable unmanned ships – a goal that received praise and strong backing by Senator John McCain. The United States already has the perfect testing ground for exploring its current and future unmanned system and to further explore the various tactical and strategic frameworks in which they would prove most valuable.
Tobias Burgers is a Doctoral candidate at the Ott-Suhr-Institute (Free University of Berlin) where he researches the rise and use of cyber and 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.