The Future of Drones in the Indo-Pacific

Drones are changing the nature of war, but are yet to decisively shift the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

Technological supremacy creates asymmetrical relationships between states. Similar to ballistic missiles, smart munitions, and cyberwarfare capability, can unmanned weapon systems, specifically unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), potentially shape the ways war are fought?

The realist theory of international relations underscores that states avoid fighting each other because of costs. War is politically costly because governments cannot send their people to the battlefield to kill and be killed unless there is a reason worth dying for. War also comes with unbearable economic costs. Hence, “victory but at what cost” is another point of concern for states.

Like realists, the philosopher Immanuel Kant agreed with the cost of war theory and noted that as technology improved, battles became more destructive and costly. Hence, states will not choose violence as their first resort. Nevertheless, instead of eschewing conflicts, states concentrate on reducing the cost of fighting. The rise of drones is helping governments reduce this cost.

Throughout the Cold War and specifically in Vietnam and Cambodia, drones were deployed for intelligence purposes. General Atomics developed the first advanced intelligence UAVs in 1989, and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Turkish Air Force were its first customers. Following 9/11, the worldwide military use of drones skyrocketed. Conflict concepts evolved to include the “global war on terrorism and humanitarian intervention” which brought new understandings of both war and enemy. Military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were so-called test-beds for UAVs, which were deployed to monitor the activities of resistance forces as well as to neutralize them. The combat-proven success of UAVs was appreciated by other countries. Israel caught the trend and produced the second-most famous UAV, Heron.

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Similar to the birth of UAVs, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) were born out of necessity. UAVs were convenient for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. However, the reaction time between detection and strike could reach up to 30 minutes, giving targets time to avoid air raids. To tackle this challenge, a Hellfire guided-missile-mounted Predator, also known as the MQ-9 Reaper, completed its first flight in 2004.

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Today, many countries operate drones for a wide range of purposes. According to a RAND Corporation report published in 2014, 50 countries have developed indigenous surveillance and reconnaissance drones, while 23 of them produce UCAVs. The numbers of countries developing and operating drones continues to increase, since UAVs meet many of the needs of irregular warfare; they are operated as part of military operations in urban warfare, rebellion, and counterterrorism. Conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, Ukraine, and Libya have demonstrated that such systems will continue to play a more significant role on the battlefield.

The development of drones represents a leap in the war-fighting capacities of states, while reducing the cost. Compared to conventional aircraft, drones are much cheaper to produce and carry out similar tasks. The cost of forming a drone squadron almost equals the price of few fighter jets. On the other hand, they are operated remotely, and in the event of accidents or being shot down, states do not have to confront the political consequence of the loss of personnel. Democratically-elected decision-makers can avoid the public pressure involved in using hard power overseas thanks to UAVs. The United States was able to bypass the War Power Act before its military intervention in the civil war in Libya since no boots on the ground were needed.

Unconventional Solutions to Unconventional Threats and Proliferation

UAVs have operational advantages in coping with emerging threats. After 9/11, it became clear that conventional fighter jets and reconnaissance aircraft were not sufficient and convenient for monitoring resistance activities in mountainous regions, as rebels could change locations and hide rapidly. Therefore, governments needed a new way to monitor these regions. Drones can fly around 20-25 hours (some versions of Reapers can fly over 60-70 hours via in-flight refueling); although a similar flight length by a manned fighter is technically possible with in-flight refueling, pilots cannot endure long hours because of distraction and fatigue. Also, even advanced fighters cannot bear maneuvers involving forces up to 9G, since this is the limit of the human body. For drones, even forces up to 50G do not pose any problems if they are built to be compatible with such high G-force exposures. Thus, some have posited that fifth-generation fighters will be the last military aircraft controlled by human pilots.

New developments in weapon systems have come along with novel threats, and for UAVs the main threat is proliferation. Governments are not the only admirers of UAVs or UCAVs; they are also appreciated by non-state armed groups, which pose grave threats to national security. Numerous non-state armed groups have incorporated UAVs into their operations, ranging from surveilling enemy positions to targeting their enemies. These armed groups are operating in regions where civil wars or extensive terrorism continue. The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) is one of the most famous non-state armed groups operating UAVs. Besides IS, Yemeni Houthis have been using drones to target Saudi Arabian positions, such as the Abqaiq oil facilities, the world’s largest oil processing plant. This set of bomb-laden drone attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia demonstrated that non-state armed groups operating drones can inflict damage on global oil supplies, as Saudi Aramco had to stop its operations in the wake of attacks.

Drones in the Indo-Pacific

From 2015 onward, the drone club has been expanding in the Indo-Pacific. Following the success of drones on various battlefields, the desire to develop indigenous armed drones spread across Asia. Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Taiwan, and India have taken steps toward developing armed drones. As of late 2020, 39 countries, five of them from the Asia-Pacific region, were operating armed drones.

Drones appeared to be one of the most cost-effective means to ensure a military presence, particularly in the fraught South and East China seas. Although maritime UAV technology is not yet proliferating at the pace of aerial drones, countries like the U.S., the U.K., and Russia are already looking seaward in UAV development. In addition to this, Indo-Pacific nations began relying on unmanned solutions for maritime missions, including monitoring China’s activity and watching for piracy and transnational criminals.

In early November 2020, the Trump administration approved four arms purchase requests from Taiwan, including the Sea Guardian drone to strengthen Taiwan’s intel-sharing capabilities. Taiwan is not the only admirer of the Sea Guardian; Japan has shown its interest in operating it to monitor China’s navy and Chinese maritime militia activities.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asia faces challenges ranging from land and maritime border disputes to longstanding issues over piracy and rebellion. Thus, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have purchased the Boeing ScanEagle. However, operating cost-effective and expendable drones has heated up the maritime disputes in the South China Sea and evoked a reaction from China, as Beijing accused the U.S. of seeking to contain China by selling drones to its neighbors.

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Drones are a vital part of China’s strategy for winning information and intelligence wars, and China has become one of the world leaders in this sector by introducing a large number of advanced drone systems. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China has delivered 220 drones to 16 countries within the last decade. Michael Horowitz noted that armed drone proliferation is inevitable because of Chinese exports. China’s exports have prompted other nations, such as South Korea, Turkey, and Russia, to boost their own efforts in developing indigenous drone capabilities.

Chinese drones have been filling the void created by the United States in the global drone market. Although the U.S. exports its drones to 55 countries, its strict regulations on the selling of military drones mean that most customers from Africa and the Middle East have turned to China. The Chinese state-owned company AVIC has been selling drones for use in various battlefields, such as to the UAE for use in Libya’s civil war, to Egypt for targeting Sinai rebels, and to Saudi-led troops in Yemen. Although they are not as capable as the U.S. or Israeli ones, Chinese drones are much cheaper (the MQ-9 Reaper costs $30 million, whereas the Wing Loong II costs $1-2 million). Also, contrary to the United States, China does not pay much attention to how its customers operate these UAVs.

Can UAVs Shape the Future of Indo-Pacific?

Despite the combat-proven success of armed drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh, it would be highly optimistic to anticipate similar results in disputed areas of the Indo-Pacific. There are several reasons for this.

First, drones have proved themselves on battlefields where there was irregular warfare in the case of state failure/collapse and a lack of advanced military systems. Some footage demonstrated that individually operating low-altitude air defense units were neutralized by drones in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, but this does not prove that drones are indestructible or stealthy. The absence of a nationwide integrated radar network ensured that these drones could infiltrate the enemy airspace. On the other hand, advanced battle management systems reinforce the capability of drones. The Turkish Armed Forces embraced a highly complicated and integrated operational concept in Syria. In this battle environment bolstered by AWACs and electronic warfare capabilities, Turkish drones could get credits against irregular and already damaged enemy forces.

Second, countries having disputes in the Indo-Pacific are financially more capable of maintaining and developing advanced military technologies than their Middle Eastern counterparts. South Korea, China, Japan, and Taiwan are the four wealthiest and militarily advanced countries in the region. On the southern flank, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines have been raising and maintaining competitive and advanced military forces. Therefore, operating drones in the region is not as easy as in the Middle East. Highly sophisticated nationwide radar networks, electronic warfare capabilities, and other advanced systems are likely to hinder the effective use of existing drones in military disputes and possible conflicts in the Indo-Pacific.

UAVs increase the warfighting, spying, and intel-gathering capabilities of states because they are easy to develop, cheaper to operate, and expendable if needed. Moreover, by operating drones, democratically-elected decision-makers will be less vulnerable to public pressure in using hard power overseas. Soon UCAVs – of various types – will be one of the dominant machines of war, not only in counterterrorism operations but also in conflicts between states. On the other hand, the international community has witnessed that non-state armed groups began acquiring and operating drones modified from commercial versions. Such advancements represent another challenge to national security. Terror groups can launch devastating attacks using bomb-laden drones, just as Houthis mounted dozens of attacks in Saudi Arabia.

U.S., Israeli, Turkish, and Chinese drones have proved their success in battlefields where countries fought against irregular forces (in Syria and Yemen) or highly weak or outdated military establishments (in Nagorno-Karabakh). Whether UAVs would play a decisive role in combat against peer or near-peer competitors is far from certain.

According to Alexander Huang from Tamkang University, UAVs are a cost-effective means of observing huge areas like the South China Sea in a non-hostile situation. However, should it come to a military standoff in the Indo-Pacific region, where countries have more capacity and up-to-date military capabilities compared to already war-torn countries, UCAVs with their current capabilities are still some time away from reshaping the rivalries of the Indo-Pacific region.