In a region as tense as the South China Sea, where you know rivals are gunning for islands in your territorial waters (and if they can’t get them, simply building new ones), more and more countries want an eye in the sky. That’s why sales of surveillance planes to Asian countries are on the rise, as the Wall Street Journal details in an excellent piece:
Military commanders in Asia are putting surveillance planes at the top of their wish lists, ahead of warships and fighter jets, as they strive to protect their territorial waters from rival claimants. […]Nowhere has Asia’s weak ISR capabilities—military shorthand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—been more ruthlessly exposed than in the South China Sea, where China has been building at least seven artificial islands to boost its territorial claims. The islets were half-built before Beijing’s rivals even realized what was happening. […]While defense spending in Asia has been surging, new monitoring capabilities have generally been neglected. But no longer: Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam are among those prioritizing up-to-date surveillance systems.
For some of the claimants, this is quite a big step up from the current system, as one memorable passage underlines:
Brig. Gen. Molina admitted that the Philippine military only heard about China’s island-building program from fishermen.“Right now our [surveillance] capability is nothing,” he said. “When something happens out there, we just don’t know about it.”
Planes like the American P-3 Orion or the P-8 Poseidon can cover a lot of ground, literally: cruising above the ocean, these types of planes can scan hundreds of miles of area at a time, detecting even tiny metallic objects with sophisticated radar technology, and they can go in for a closer look with incredible, military-grade optics. So as more of them are deployed over Asia’s much-disputed waters, it will get harder for China, or anyone else, to take their adversaries by surprise. As the WSJ properly notes, though, Beijing doesn’t seem too deterred by the bad publicity from its territorial aggression these days.