US Enhanced Response Capabilities, Surveillance and Reconnaissance to Deal with China in The SCS

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In April 2016, the US has deployed four aircrafts “Thunder God” A-10 and two HH-60 rescue helicopters on Scarborough Shoal.


The US Navy’s MQ-4C Triton drone. Picture: AP/Technology

According to Army Technology (July 11, 2018), the US is deploying Triton drones to Guam to assist with surveillance in the South China Sea, where the battle for strategic supremacy with China threatens to escalate into direct confrontation. The first Triton squadron, Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19, will arrive at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam this summer. Once the drone reaches initial operational capability in 2021, the Navy plans to deploy a further two aircraft in Guam, with the four Titans making up one 24-hour, seven-day orbit. Built by Northrop Grumman and based on the RQ-4 Global Hawk platform used by the US Air Force, the high altitude, long-range MQ-4C Triton platform has a wingspan of 131ft, weighs 14,628kg, and is installed with 360° electro-optical sensors capable of tracking maritime targets from 60,000ft. The MQ-4C Triton incorporates a reinforced airframe and wing, de-icing and lighting protection systems and sophisticated sensor suites, allowing the platform to track ships over vast distances. “During surveillance missions using Triton, Navy operators may spot a target of interest and order the aircraft to a lower altitude to make positive identification,” stated Mike Mackey, Northrop Grumman’s Triton UAS programme director. “The wing’s strength allows the aircraft to safely descend, sometimes through weather patterns, to complete this manoeuvre”. The Triton can fly more than 24 hours at a time and has an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles. The data collected by the two drones will be fed back to ground stations at Naval Station Mayport in Florida, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington, or to P-8A Poseidon submarine hunters.

According to experts, recently, the situation has become ominous. In March, China deployed a 40-ship flotilla, including its only native-built aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to the South China Sea. The following month, reports came out that Beijing had installed electronic jamming equipment on two of its outposts in the Spratly islands. Despite President Xi Jinping’s assurances in 2015 that he would never seek to militarise the islands, China now operates three 10,000ft runways there, in addition to aircraft hangars, bunkers, military housing and deep-water piers for ships. In response, the US has decided to step up its ïntelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in the region, beginning with the deployment of two $180m MQ-4C Triton drones.

Located at the crux of where the Pacific and Indian Oceans meet, the South China Sea is one of the most hotly-contested geopolitical regions on Earth. A critical thoroughfare for the global economy, nearly a third of all maritime trade – worth a staggering $5.3tn last year – passes through it. Beijing has drawn a so-called ‘nine-dash line’ over the South China Sea, a territorial claim stretching 200 miles south and east from the province of Hainan, backed by island-building and naval patrols.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference on 2 June, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis spoke out against China’s strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the region, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and, more recently, the landing of nuclear-capable bombers at Woody Island. “What China is winning is de facto control of nearly the entire South China Sea, including all activities and resources in it, despite the other surrounding Southeast Asian states’ respective legal rights and entitlements under international law”, Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, told Nikkei Asian Review.

Since 2014, the United States has maintained patrols for freedom maritime (FONOP) near the artificial islands that China built illegally and military in the South China Sea. In February 2015, the US Navy deployed hunting aircraft Submarine P-8A Poseidon carried out surveillance missions on the sea off the island Luzon, Philippines. This is the first time the United States has officially acknowledged aircraft maneuvering Poseidon's most advanced hunting patrol in the South China Sea. November 2015, the US also deployed B-52 patrols near Chinese built artificial islands illegal proceeding in the South China Sea. In April 2016, the US has deployed four aircrafts “Thunder God” A-10 and two HH-60 rescue helicopters on Scarborough Shoal. Carl Vinson lieutenant commander Tim Hawkins said at that the US Navy had carried out routine air and sea patrols of the region for 70 years to promote security and guarantee the unimpeded flow of trade. “International law allows us to operate here, allows us to fly here, allows us to train here, allows us to sail here, and that’s what we’re doing and we’re going to continue to do that”. US troops do not “let go” in front of China's military development momentum. Many of these entities are occupied by the country in the South China Sea and will continue patrolling in the South China Sea where the “international law allows”, he said.