Last week, the Pentagon announced that more drones would be delivered to Southeast Asian states over the next few years. While the development is just one manifestation of U.S. security assistance to Southeast Asian states, its significance is worth noting in the context of broader ongoing developments in both Washington and in the region, including in the maritime domain more specifically.
While maritime security has long been among the key areas of U.S. defense collaboration with Southeast Asian states, attention to it has been increasing over the past few years due to a confluence of trends, including intensifying efforts by regional states to develop their own maritime capabilities to address a series of challenges, China’s rising maritime assertiveness, and relatively greater U.S. prioritization of Southeast Asia within its broader Asia policy. There have been various manifestations of U.S. maritime security assistance at the bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral levels, ranging from Washington’s increasing engagement with emerging coast guards forces in Southeast Asia to the advancement of the Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) in spite of changes that have been made to the initial program.
That has continued on into 2019 as well. The Department of Defense continues to prioritize maritime security among the key agenda items as it operationalizes the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, as evidenced in the long-awaited Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which was finally unveiled to coincide with U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s debut appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this past weekend. Key developments of note include the sale of vessels to Vietnam as well as the long-mulled ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX), which is set to take place this September.
One aspect of U.S. maritime security assistance to Southeast Asian states has been unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. Such equipment can be used for a range of purposes including in the maritime domain, given that their significance lies in the improvements they offer for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities (ISR) that can impact areas such as terrorism, piracy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and maritime domain awareness. To take just one example, for the Philippines, U.S. drones such as the Aerovironment RQ-11 Raven hand-launched UAVs, Gray Eagle Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and Boeing Insitu ScanEagle UAVs have been useful for various security challenges including dealing with the fallout from the 2017 siege by Islamic State-linked militants in Marawi city as well as preserving Manila’s South China Sea claims.
Last week, this aspect of U.S.-Southeast Asia ties was in the spotlight again with an announcement by the Pentagon that the United States would sell drones to several Southeast Asian states. Per the DOD release issued on May 31, Insitu Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boeing, would sell 34 ScanEagle drones to the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam for a total of $47 million – 12 drones and equipment to Malaysia, eight for Indonesia, eight for the Philippines, and six for Vietnam – under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. The sale includes spare payloads, spare and repair parts, support equipment, tools, training, technical services, and field service representatives, with work on the equipment expected to be completed by March 2022.
Given the continuing anxiety about China’s maritime assertiveness and the focus of the countries in the DOD release, it is little surprise that the headlines framed the new drones largely in terms of the South China Sea and regional efforts to address this (officially, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are all claimants in the South China Sea, while Indonesia is an interested party). In fact, more broadly, the significance of the new round of maritime security assistance involving ScanEagle drones ought to be understood as a continuation of already ongoing U.S. efforts in this realm, which the South China Sea is a part of. As I have noted with respect to previous ScanEagle deliveries as well, most Southeast Asian states still require further boosts in their ISR capabilities in order to accomplish basic tasks such as properly monitoring their own waters and coordinating efforts between various agencies to address security challenges. For the United States, beyond the value of such capacity-building efforts for its own sake, it is also consistent with wider U.S. security priorities, including fostering the development of a more integrated maritime domain awareness across Southeast Asia and beyond.
To be sure, the announcement only related to one aspect of the broader role that the United States continues to play in maritime security in Southeast Asia. But these specific examples will continue to be important to watch in order to get a sense for how the advancement of this general priority is actually being followed up by tangible initiatives in the coming years.