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Weapons of the weak: UAVs in the South China Sea

By Liang Nah - posted Tuesday, 27 October 2015

An often quoted statement by ancient Greek historian Thucydides in his principal work, History of the Peloponnesian War, is that"the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must". When this dictum is applied to the South China Sea, we see that the People's Republic of China (PRC) uses its economic prosperity-fueled military strength to reinforce its influence within its self-proclaimed "nine-dotted line", regardless of the fact that much of what the PRC claims as its maritime territory, firmly lies within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of littoral states like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

But despite the apparent wisdom of Thucydides's saying and the applicability of realist strategic realities in Asia, perhaps a more practical version of this aphorism would be, "the strong do what they wish and the weak resist as best they can". Inasmuch as Beijing resolutely flexes the PRC's naval muscle in the South China Sea, and even builds lighthouses on its claimed islands to bolster sovereignty claims, the ASEAN littoral Spratly Islands claimants need not resign themselves to Chinese dominance, but can and should adopt various "weapons of the weak" to challenge the PRC's bid for maritime hegemony and reclaim influence over their respective EEZs. Towards this end, even cash-strapped nations like the Philippines, Vietnam and to a lesser extent Malaysia, can employ innovative and yet affordable technologies as part of a sovereignty preserving sea denial and reclamation strategy, designed to resist Chinese encroachment. One such promising technological tool is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone.

Regional Defence Resource Scarcity


It is obvious that the South China Sea island claimants apart from mainland China, face defence resource scarcity and cannot muster enough ships and maritime patrol aircraft to adequately exert sovereignty over their EEZs. A quick check of publicly available statistics reveals that the Philippines had a defence budget of US$3.2 billion in 2015, Malaysia allotted itself US$5.4 billion in the same year, and Vietnam spent US$7.8 billion in 2013. All of this pales in comparison to the US$141 billion in defence funds at the disposal of China in 2015.

Turning to naval strength and sea surveillance aircraft for adequate maritime patrols, it can be seen that the Philippines has 47 frigates, corvettes and patrol craft that have sufficient range to mount meaningful missions into its EEZ (even as most of its vessels are arguably obsolete), Vietnam has 45 vessels including submarines, frigates, corvettes and patrol craft (much of it dating back to the Cold War), and Malaysia has 34 reasonably modern submarines, frigates, corvettes, patrol vessels and fast attack craft. Examining maritime patrol aircraft, the Philippines will only have 16 – 18 surveillance aircraft by December 2015 (mostly outdated airframes), Vietnam has 13 patrol aircraft (none of which have advanced radar capability), and Malaysia falls short with only 10 maritime aircraft.

Considering that each of the above mentioned nations have EEZs that encompass many tens of thousands of square kilometres of ocean, and that only a fraction of their ships and aircraft can be deployed at any one time due to required technical maintenance, it becomes obvious that large swaths of EEZ will be unmonitored and unregulated. Hence, these areas will be open to illegal fishing or poaching, dumping of toxic waste, piracy, encroachment by the PRC's naval forces and even unauthorised exploitation of seabed mineral resources by foreign powers. Additionally, even if Manila, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur were inclined to pressure their navies and air forces to shorten maintenance and deploy more sea and air assets on a constant basis, it would still be very challenging, not to mention expensive (factoring in increased fuel and crew costs) to sustain 24/7 manned nautical and aerial EEZ surveillance.

In contrast, illegal fishing fleets (often accompanied by decommissioned navy ships from China's large coast guard or national fisheries agency), toxic garbage scows, pirates, warships from the PRC's burgeoning navy and mining exploratory vessels can choose when to poach, pollute, hijack and intrude in areas where national maritime and aerial enforcement is observed to be weak or non-existent.

UAVs as a Surveillance and Sovereignty Preservation Aid

Bearing in mind the shortfalls in Philippino, Vietnamese and Malaysian naval and aerial surveillance platforms, it is perhaps prudent for their respective governments to consider acquiring cost effective assets, such as UAVs, which can deliver mission effectiveness beyond their price. Airborne surveillance drones would be more economical to acquire and operate as they are smaller and mount fewer engines than maritime patrol aircraft, while consuming less fuel and typically requiring fewer flight crew (one ground based pilot and one sensor operator versus two airborne pilots plus other systems personnel). Additionally, UAVs like the U.S. RQ-1 Predator and Israeli Hermes 450 have ranges that enable EEZ patrolling, and can stay aloft for 20 hours or more, providing round-the-clock coverage to detect and deter nautical crime and foreign intrusion. Hence, the deployment of drones can ensure that no questionable marine activity goes undetected, preventing any fait accompli by foreign powers and reinforcing national sovereignty.


Turning to operational considerations, UAVs can be the eyes of Southeast Asian littoral states, enabling efficient and effective forward deployment of naval surface assets to EEZ sectors, where they are most required as concrete deterrents.

As for the practical feasibility of aerial drone acquisition, Israeli drones are arguably cheaper than American ones and can be had at reasonable prices, while being an option for states like Vietnam which are not explicit U.S. allies. If Manila and Kuala Lumpur choose to purchase U.S. UAVs, the former could appeal to Washington for military aid funds to be diverted towards drone provision while the latter could request to buy older refurbished, but more affordable versions of the Predator.

The Political Message: A Refusal to Surrender or Concede

It is clear that the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia cannot match the military might of the PRC, nor can the former be expected to massively beef up their navies, naval air arms and air forces to challenge China, given the lack of defence funds and the expensive nature of quality military hardware. Notwithstanding these realities, these comparatively "weak" Southeast Asian littoral states can efficiently "resist as best they can" Chinese regional military preponderance using relatively frugal but innovative solutions like UAVs. Essentially, the political message to Beijing could be, "we are NOT prepared to surrender what is legitimately ours".

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About the Author

Liang Tuang Nah is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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