Indo-Pacific partners boost capabilities with UAVs from U.S.

Indo-Pacific partners boost capabilities with UAVs from U.S.

Tom Abke

The intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of four Indo-Pacific militaries that operate in the South China Sea (SCS) are receiving a boost from a U.S. Department of Defense program that will provide them with a combined 34 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Malaysia received six of the ScanEagles in May 2020, marking the first batch of planned deliveries.

The program, known as the SCS Maritime Security Initiative of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, was initiated to “conduct partner capacity building in the SCS region,” according to a U.S. government fact sheet. The ScanEagles are jointly produced by the Boeing Co. and Insitu Inc., a Boeing subsidiary that designs and manufactures UAVs.

Malaysia will receive 12 of the UAVs while Indonesia and the Philippines will receive eight apiece. Vietnam is scheduled to receive six, and all the recipients will use the UAVs to support maritime security activities in the South China Sea.

Malaysia’s Navy will use the UAVs to enhance its “ability to defend the country’s territorial integrity,” announced a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The UAVs will support the Navy’s capabilities to patrol strategic routes along the Malacca Strait, South China Sea and Sulu Sea, according to a report by the New Straits Times newspaper.

Each recipient nation has been dogged by maritime security threats, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. These include: encroachment on their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones by Chinese vessels; armed attacks at sea by criminal gangs and pirates; and natural disasters ranging from tropical storms to tsunamis and earthquakes.

Sensor payloads available for the ScanEagle, pictured, include electro-optic, infrared and high-resolution video cameras that enable the operator to monitor stationary and moving targets. At 1.7 meters long and with a wingspan of 3.1 meters, the UAV is small enough to be launched and recovered from a range of maritime vessels with the aid of its catapult launcher and Skyhook recovery system.

The UAV is also well-suited for disaster relief. Four ScanEagles were deployed in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 to areas near Houston, Texas, to help with search-and-rescue efforts, critical infrastructure assessments and security patrols.

The U.S. is fully funding the program at a cost of about U.S. $1.4 million per vehicle. Delivery of the six remaining ScanEagles to Malaysia and the 22 bound for the three other countries is expected by 2022.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.