While nothing is cheap in defence, a range of less expensive capabilities might be enough, especially if networked with allies.
The Indo-Pacific region has a wide range of maritime security problems from local constabulary issues and economic crimes through to high-end state-based threats.
In terms of state-based threats, China is the leading infringing state and although it is by no means the only country challenging state sovereign rights, it is in a class of its own in terms of scale and level of aggression. Piracy, smuggling, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, slavery at sea and maritime-enabled terrorism are also all problems in the region, particularly South East Asia.
But because the nature of the threats are so varied it makes the maritime security challenge even more considerable.
The best way to respond to these challenges is increased situational awareness. It is not possible to respond to the threats without an understanding of exactly what they are, who the actors are and how they are operating, so as to inform the best response.
Different types of situational awareness data is needed to meet the different threats therefore, the types of maritime patrol assets used to collect this information will vary in type.
John Bradford, senior fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) told AMR: “What is under appreciated by a lot of non-maritime specialists that get involved in maritime security is that not all information is the same and not all information is collected in the same way.”
He explained that whilst one particular data set might be useful in countering piracy or tracking down terrorists, it might not be useful in trying to guard sea lanes. “There is no one-size fits all solution,” he added.
Because of the range of threats, situational awareness is a priority for SE Asian countries but there are many states that are lacking capacity. This contributes to the scale of the challenge as situational awareness is not persistent enough.
“They have to look for the most economical solution, what is the system or the data set, or the ability to gather a data set, which comes at the lowest cost that does the most to address this variety of threats,” Bradford said.
For countries in SE Asia, solutions such as expensive maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) like the Boeing P-8A Poseidon, whilst an incredible data gathering tool, is seen regionally as an anti-submarine warfare aircraft and not really suitable to meet their needs. A range of less expensive long endurance platforms are more appropriate either in the air or on the surface of the sea.
“It’s just it’s challenging for most organisations. So that’s why you see a variety of different solutions,” Bradford said.
Singapore, a small city state has limited manpower availability and therefore can’t procure too many platforms that require a lot of personnel to run them.
Its primary airborne MPA is the Fokker-50. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has an inventory of six aircraft which were upgraded in 2015 to allow them to continue to operate for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, a spokesperson from the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) told AMR that it is in the “preliminary stages” of a replacement project.
The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) operates Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk naval helicopters from the Formidable-class frigates as its other main manned airborne asset, but elsewhere it has turned to unmanned or lean-manned solutions to provide further maritime situational awareness capabilities.
In March, MINDEF announced that it had acquired the Aeronautics Orbiter 4 Close-Range Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (CR-UAV) to further enhance the ISR capability of the RSAF. Meanwhile the RSN operates Heron 1 UAS from IAI and the ScanEagle UAS that was provided by Boeing under the US Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) which was initiated in 2019 and has also gifted $48 million of platforms to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. The MINDEF spokesperson said ScanEagle is used to “provide the last miles target acquisition and identification.”
Plans are underway to introduce six new Maritime Security Unmanned Surface Vessels (MARSEC USVs) that will operate alongside the lean-manned Littoral Mission Vessels (LMVs). The MARSEC USVs have been developed by MINDEF’s Defence Science & Technology Agency (DSTA) and fitted with collision avoidance sensors to operate in a crowded marine environment. Initial trials have been completed with preparations for full autonomous sea trials underway. MINDEF has stated that these USVs will “enhance the RSN’s ability to monitor and respond to situations at sea” by being able to conduct “round-the-clock” patrols and interdict suspicious vessels in its waters.
Singapore is also establishing a Maritime Security Response Flotilla (MRSF) as part of a re-structure of its Maritime Security Command. It is utilising four ex-Fearless-class patrol vessels that have been refurbished and are now known as the Sentinel-class operating alongside two Maritime Security and Response Tugboats (MRSTs). There are plans for new boats to replace the Sentinels from 2026 but in the meantime the MRSF and MRSTs give the Singaporean authorities more capability and allow its other larger manned assets like the LMVs and frigates to be diverted to more strategic tasks further out to sea.
But the most cost-effective way for SE Asian counties to improve situational awareness is to share their maritime picture and situational awareness intelligence. The MINDEF spokesperson said there are “ongoing efforts” to promote information sharing. In May 2019 the Information Fusion Centre (IFC) in Singapore launched its real-time information-sharing system (IRIS) that provides a fused maritime pictures using different information sources including AIS, Long-Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT), partner navy and coastguard operations centres, civilian agencies and the shipping community through the VCR system. IRIS has a chat function to allow stakeholders to collaborate and it can be accessed using computers and mobile devices at sea.
Unmanned solutions are also important for other countries in SE Asia as a cost-effective and relatively fast way of introducing additional ISR capabilities. In 2019 the Indonesian Air Force took delivery of six CASC Cai Hong 4B (CH-4B) medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAS from China and it has built a prototype MALE system named Black Eagle under its own indigenous UAS project. A prototype was launched in 2019.
In 2020, Indonesia signed an agreement with the US to accept a grant for the delivery of 14 Boeing ScanEagle UAS (worth $28.3 million) and an upgrade for three Bell 412 helicopters (valued at $6.3 million) that will include EOIR sensors. These platforms will be used for maritime surveillance around the Natuna Islands where Chinese forces have made incursions and there is a dispute between Beijing and Jakarta.
In addition the Indonesian Navy has procured six Sampari-class KCR-60M fast attack craft for surface surveillance and interception. The sixth craft was launched by Indonesian shipbuilder PT Pal in April and will be handed over shortly. There are plans for 18 ships that will be used for border surveillance.
Neighbouring Malaysia stood up its first UAS unit, Squadron 601, which operates the 12 ScanEagles UAS it acquired under the MSI. Meanwhile Malaysian company Deftech unveiled a new ISR Tactical UAV at the DSA 2022 exhibition in late-March. Another local firm, Mindmatics, showcased its Helang VTOL UAS which is already operated by Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) for border surveillance missions.
To sustain its manned maritime airborne surveillance capability Malaysia has converted its Airbus CN-235 tactical transport aircraft into MPAs to replace its ageing King Air B200T aircraft and sustain a manned maritime surveillance capability while it looks to acquire a new MPA. The Leonardo ATR-72, Airbus CN295, Airbus CN-235 and Bombardier’s Dash 8-Q400 are thought to be contenders for the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) programme.
The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) is also running a programme for two new MPAs to replace its Bombardier CL415 aircraft. Options are believed to be the Super King Air 350, Saab 340MSA and Dash 8-Q400.
Other projects include the acquisition of AW139 helicopters for the RMN from Leonardo under Malaysia’s Maritime Operations Helicopter project. A spokesperson from Leonardo told AMR that the AW139 maritime utility helicopters feature dedicated sensors and equipment, including light weapon systems, and will be stationed in Kota Kinabalu. “They can carry out a range of missions including, among others, SAR, medevac, utility, and anti-piracy. Deliveries were performed fast and well ahead of schedule. The AW139s add to the RMN’s Super Lynx 300 naval specialised helicopters,” the spokesperson said. AW139s are already in use by the MMEA, police and Bomba services. The RMAF will lease four units from Weststar Aviation Services for a utility role.
On the surface the RMN took delivery of six Gading Marine G2000 FIC 18M variant fast interceptor craft in March 2021 worth $18 million (RM80 million). They have been allocated to the RMN’s fast combat boat squadron where Malaysian Defense Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob said they would be used to strengthen the level of control in the country’s waters under Op Benteng to guard against illegal migration into the country. There are plans to procure a further 13 vessels for $27 million.
Like Malaysia, the Philippines is also embarking in a programme for two new MPAs. The Philippines Air Force (PAF) has had an MPA requirement since 2014 under its Long Range Patrol Aircraft (LRPA) project worth just over $100 million. Indonesian company PT Dirgantara is believed to be offering the CN235 with Airbus offering the C295 and Leonardo the ATR-72. Surplus US Air Force P-3C Orion aircraft could also be an option.
LRPA will provide a dedicated MPA capability that will enhance the PAF’s ISR gathering beyond its two existing Cessna 208B Grand Caravan ISR aircraft that were donated by the US in 2017 for counter-terrorism operations. The PAF lost its earlier MPA capability when it retired its Fokker F27-200 aircraft.
The Philippines Navy (PN) operates two Beechcraft TC-90 King Air aircraft in the airborne maritime patrol role alongside the ScanEagle and Hermes UAS. But the PN intends to acquire eight ex-US Navy TC-12B Huron aircraft under US Foreign Military Financing and US Excess Defense Article projects to supplement this fleet.
In May 2022, the Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) commissioned two 97m-long Multi-Role Response Vessels (MRRVs) that were built in Shimonoseki by Mitsubishi and purchased from Japan under the joint Japanese-Philippines Maritime Safety Capability Improvement Project (MSCIP) Phase 2. The MRRVs will be used as the flagships for the PCG and conduct operations to reinforce the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The first MRRV Teresa Magbanua (9701) arrived in Manilla in February with the second due to arrive as AMR went to press. A further ten 44m-long MRRVs have also been delivered under MSCIP.
Thailand’s surface maritime patrolling capability is centred on its fleet of large 58m-long M58 patrol boats and smaller 21m-long M21 patrol boats delivered from local shipbuilder Marsun and the Thonburi Naval Dockyard. The first M58-class patrol boat, HTMS Leamsing, was delivered in the 2016-17 timeframe and has deployed with the Royal Thai Navy’s (RTN’s) coast guard squadron. It is not clear how many additional boats have been delivered, but for the M21-class at least 12-14 M21 have been reported as either delivered or under construction.
In the air the RTN has Dornier 228 aircraft for maritime patrolling, but it is introducing more unmanned systems to increase capability at low cost.
As part of this modernisation the RTN is acquiring additional S-100 rotary wing UAS from Schiebel for sea-based ISR operations. The company was awarded a contract in March worth $18 million for two units that will be delivered by the end of the year. These will add to two already in-service that were bought under a $19.4 million contract awarded in 2019 and were delivered in 2020. The RTN already uses the Orbiter 3B and RQ-21A Blackjack UAS and has selected the Hermes 900 MALE system for long-range surveillance. But to reduce reliance on overseas providers the RTN is developing its own vertical take-off and landing UAS, the Maritime Aerial Reconnaissance Craft Unmanned System, or MARCUS B. It completed trials earlier in 2022 on the RTN’s aircraft carrier HTMS Chakri Naruebet (CVH-911) and is due to enter service this year.
by Tim Fish