Countering the ‘Pirates’ Paradise’: Unmanned Systems and Marine Security in Southeast Asia

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Countering the ‘Pirates’ Paradise’: Unmanned Systems and Marine Security in Southeast Asia

Drones could help close the capabilities gaps that allow pirates to flourish in Asian waters.

Countering the ‘Pirates’ Paradise’: Unmanned Systems and Marine Security in Southeast Asia

A Fire Scout unmanned helicopter preparing to land on the USS Nashville during sea trials, 2006.

Credit: US Navy photo by Kurt M. Lengfield

In prior articles, we wrote about the use of unmanned systems for military affairs, focusing on naval combat and hybrid warfare and the possible dangers of how unmanned systems could fit into the framework of political hybrid warfare. However, unmanned systems – UAVs in particular – have more uses than those described above, including the use of UAVs for surveillance purposes to counter piracy across Southeast Asian (SEA) waters.

Piracy spiked in many parts of the world in the early 2000s, particularly in oceans with high traffic and relatively long distances being covered by container ships with little or no protection in the open waters. As reported in the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) most recent quarterly report on maritime piracy, during the first three quarters of 2017, an estimated 121 incidences of piracy occurred. Incidences of piracy covered such actions as attempted attacks, boardings, shootings, hijackings (and attempts), and citings of suspicious vessels by commercial shipping.

The waters of the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Eden are well-known when it comes to piracy. Yet 40 percent of all piracy attacks undertaken over the past two decades occurred in Asian waters. Piracy has become a major security concern in the context of commercial shipping operations taking place from the Andaman Sea to the waters off the northern coast of the Philippines. In 2016 and 2015, the greatest concentration of piracy, which predominantly included boardings but attacks as well, took place in the SEA region. The region has essentially become a “pirates’ paradise.”

Southeast Asia is a “paradise” for pirates because governments have failed to establish early warning systems and thus develop their early warning and response capabilities, while surveillance and control have been falling behind the growing challenge. In such a setting, the use of unmanned systems, from UAVs to unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), provides a distinctive area of opportunity for states seeking to reduce the threat of piracy toward vital commercial shipping and shipping routes. Relatively cost effective, UAVs are able to surveil extended areas and provide security through continuous reconnaissance.

UAVs have been discussed as possible instruments of anti-piracy for several years as other efforts have proved to be of limited effect. Target hardening, for instance, has played a significant role in reducing the threat of piracy in certain locations, but hardening every potential target comes at a great cost and cannot be treated as a feasible long-term solution in the face of piracy, especially without incorporating the UAV element. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that commercial shipping companies that rely on the use of strategic choke points and operate in distant locations beyond the reaches of maritime security forces have increasingly turned their attention to UAVs being employed in this domain.

Efforts have been undertaken to incorporate UAVs into anti-piracy missions. The European Union Naval Force’s (EUNAVFOR) Operation Atalanta, the EU’s anti-piracy naval mission off the coast of Somalia, deployed UAVs for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISR) purposes. Such efforts could be replicated in the SEA maritime domain, and to great effect. Local navies could seek to incorporate UAVs in their ISR, though such efforts do not come without their own set of challenges. Of the regional navies, Indonesia and Malaysia have the financial, logistical, and operational capabilities to deploy medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drones. Smaller units could be used for ISR purposes closer shorelines and for tracking piracy locations, sanctuaries, and raids on safe havens at short distances.

UAVs can provide advanced warning for essential shipping and the movement of much-needed goods in for growing economies and populations. The deployment of these systems can also reduce the burden placed on conventional air forces assigned to anti-piracy duties and as a result reduce the financial burdens that fall on governments. The United States has increasingly employed its ScanEagle UAV, which is also operated by other partners in the international fight against piracy in the open waters. The MQ-8B Fire Scout (with a unit cost of under $20 million) is another vital instrument incorporated into international efforts to combat piracy. Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout, introduced over a decade ago, can complement strike squadrons ready at sea to interdict potential pirates in vital waterways. These are viable solutions for states able to afford and manage intricate systems or that either rely on or work directly with the United States in the maritime security realm.

China’s U650 seaplane drone, which can make water-landings, represents an alternative to the United States’ offerings. The completely unmanned unit, now being mass-produced in Shanghai, is capable of operating for up to 15 hours at travel at a speed in excess of 110 mph. Research and development in the unmanned realm has shown the potential to spawn a healthy competition between drone states, possibly leading to benefits for others in the commercial maritime realm.

Beyond efforts led by states, the possibility of using private security companies for unmanned surveillance ought to be considered carefully. Private companies could provide such services in a two-fold system. The first would be via MALE drones, capable of tracking and surveilling on a broad scale. The second option comes in the form of deploying armed guards – as is increasingly the custom on international shipping vessels – using small unmanned units. The use of smaller UAVs by private security companies and contractors would enhance their own ISR capabilities, increase their ability to provide security and could function as early-warning systems for the state.

As UAV costs – small and medium alike – have come down in recent years, it seems increasingly likely that private companies, as non-state security actors, could provide help to fill the security gap when it comes to this vital aspect of the global economy. At the same time, the wholesale of military UAVs – as enabled by China – has helped SEA military actors acquire their own unmanned aerial capabilities. A combination of these state actors and non-state, commercial efforts by shipping companies and contractors could provide the aerial surveillance capability needed to reduce the threat of piracy in the waters around SEA and turn the “pirates’ paradise” once more into a safe and secure shipping heaven.

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 Ph.D. candidate in International Studies (University of Trento). His research focuses on asymmetric warfare, counterterrorism, international security, and the use of force.