Drone War: China, Vietnam, And Philippines Turn To Unmanned Flights In South China Sea ‘Mexican Standoff’

"Drone war" appears to be building up in the South China Sea as China, Vietnam, and the Philippines jostle for advantage in their "Mexican standoff." According to an expert, their turning to unmanned aerial vehicle technology reflects new terms of global competition changing the rules of the game for many long-simmering conflicts and rivalries.

Drone expert Michael Boyle, a senior fellow at the United States-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said in a Voice of America interview that aired on February 5 that the area over the disputed South China Sea islands is prime for an airspace war. He echoed other experts who believe U.A.V.s will influence tussles in the South China Sea.

"They have a number of advantages: Drones can identify changes on the ground in the islands and provide photographic evidence of military build-ups."
Boyle said that U.S. complacency over its superiority in drone technology paves the way for China and Russia now spending billions, to catch up in the U.A.V. design war. In his opinion, drone use will be patterned after the U.S. model, focusing on targets in "ungoverned territories."

V.O.A. News indicated that China's drones are being employed for videography during marriages, courier delivery, and security surveillance in major industrial projects. Drone production by the country's roughly 400 manufacturers jumped nine times within one year during 2015, indicating demand growth for civilian use, not to mention war application.

Drone exhibit in China
Young consumers entranced by drone exhibition in China [Photo by China Fotopress/Getty Images]Boyle warned that several of China's drone models carry war potential. He based his opinion on findings at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
"Many of the Chinese drone manufacturers are selling small U.A.V.s capable of battlefield reconnaissance and some that can now be equipped with missiles."
According to Janes, Vietnamese television and other media have revealed a drone to eventually perform civil and military missions over the South China Sea. Vietnam's largest indigenous high-altitude long-endurance (H.A.L.E.) unmanned aerial vehicle (U.AV.) was reportedly assembled with design assistance from Belarus. Unveiled in December 2015, this twin-boom-configured HS-6L with a 22-meter wingspan and a range of 4,000 kilometers, is a product of Vietnam's Academy of Science and Industry and Ministry of Public Security. With an endurance of 35 hours, the Vietnamese U.A.V. is powered by a war-standard Rotax 914 engine.

The Vietnamese drone prototype was completed on November 1, 2015 and slated for flight testing over the South China Sea in mid-2016. Roughly in the same class as the Israeli Aerospace Industries' Heron drone, the Vietnamese version allows for war-efficient optical and radar surveillance systems.

Defense World reports that the Philippines has a military modernization project with Motorola-based Triton Communication Corporation for a fleet of U.A.V.s. The acquisition of drones worth $14 million comes along with air surveillance radars worth $56 million, amphibious assault vehicles worth $53 million, and Air Force full motion flight simulators worth $5 million.

U.S. Navy drone
U.S. Navy drone that could end up in the Philippines [Photo by U.S. Navy/Getty Images]Philippine drone-supplier Triton Communication Corporation is subject to guidelines of the Marine Forces Imagery and Targeting Support System Acquisition Project. The acquisition involves six sets of drones of the small unmanned aerial vehicle subsystem variety among other equipment necessary to deal with China's unspoken war on freedom of navigation.

Vietnam has suffered numerous fatalities while defending traditional fishing outposts on reefs seized by China in the Paracel chain of the South China Sea. The Philippines has suffered the indignity of losing three known features within its exclusive economic zone, invaded by China invoking an ambiguous historical entitlement. With drone technology adding to China's overwhelming military advantage over its neighbors, Vietnam and the Philippines are caught in a tug-of-war between relying on world court intervention or beefing up their limited self-defense capabilities.

A drone war appears to be in the making from this "Mexican Standoff" in the South China Sea.

[Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images]