The Buzz

Joint Air Patrols in the South China Sea: A Good Idea?

In examining recent suggestions for joint patrolling of the South China Sea, analysts have tended to focus on the surface vessels of various nations’ coast guards and navies. Yet the flight of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon hosting a CNN film crew over disputed waters in the South China Sea in May highlighted the potential of air power – specifically maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) – in executing the possible missions of joint patrols. To explore the potential effectiveness of South China Sea joint air patrols it is important to first be clear about the often overlooked distinctions in missions, locations, and concepts.

Proposed joint air patrol missions broadly fall into two categories. One seeks to counter excessive claims and rights not in accordance with international law (i.e. maritime freedom of navigation and overflight, or FON, operations). A second, exemplified by the Eyes-in-the-Sky(EiS) component of the Malacca Strait Patrol (MSP), is geared towards enhancing maritime domain awareness (MDA) and enforcement.

In addition to objectives, it is critical to understand the proposed operating areas. Dzirhan Mahadzir, a defense journalist based in Malaysia, notes “many forget that the South China Sea is a sprawling area. People got excited at May’s International Maritime Defense Exhibition (IMDEX) when the Republic of Singapore Navy Chief called for patrols in the South China Sea to deter piracy, but he was referring to just a small zone off Johor and Singapore.”

Joint air patrols’ locations can also present difficulties due to conflicting territorial claims and, to a lesser extent, whether the proposed area actually presents a cost-effective opportunity to undertake the professed MDA or FON mission, in case the real purpose of the joint patrols is deterrence or signaling directed at a third party.

In fact, many of the same challenges that encumber surface joint patrols, including lack of interoperability, capacity, political will, and information-sharing agreements apply to their prospective air counterparts. But an air approach also brings unique challenges.

The nature of air patrols increases the importance of the endurance and range of platforms, with the former measured in hours instead of the days or weeks of a surface patrol, and heightens the value of neighboring facilities – in this case airstrips – which extend time on station. One of the more interesting dichotomies is that concerned states not embroiled in South China Sea territorial disputes such as the United States, Japan, and Australia generally have greater MPA capabilities than claimant states, while claimant states naturally have the nearby air bases non-claimants lack.

The result has been a pairing of the two. It should be no surprise that like many U.S. P-8A patrols over the South China Sea, the flight in May took off from the Philippines’ Clark Air Base. Similarly, Royal Australian Air Force P-3C surveillance flights of the southern expanses of the South China Sea depart from Royal Malaysian Air Force Station Butterworth on the Malay Peninsula as part of the decades-long Operation Gateway. This arrangement however means that both the hosting and use of tenant capabilities – including joint patrols – are dependent on the host nation’s politics.

The symbiotic nature of participants in “unilateral” air patrols over the South China Sea illustrates a third nuance, that the essential ingredients required to cook up a “joint patrol” are open to interpretation. Start with participation. A classic joint air patrol involves two manned aircraft accompanying each other. However, Professor Alex Calvo of Nagoya University says an expansive definition could include the provision of emergency landing facilities, intelligence-sharing, embedded personnel, and ultimately manned planes – to which I would add aerial refueling and unmanned surveillance platforms. For instance, Operation Gateway could qualify as it is “a bilateral arrangement with Malaysia and involves sharing sortie data in exchange for access to facilities,” says Rear Adm. James Goldrick, Royal Australian Navy (Ret.), an adjunct professor at UNSW Canberra.

Further, Dzirhan notes that instead of the classic definition of joint patrols, EiS consists of “coordinated patrols, in which each country’s aircraft patrol specific sectors within their own territory,” albeit carrying country liaison officers. In such MDA missions, the concentration of resources in joint patrols might actually be counterproductive. FON flights make a better case for joint air patrols due to the reinforcing symbolism of multiple nations registering their non-consent to a claim. It is therefore important to clarify whether a proposal is discussing traditional joint air patrols or coordinated air patrols.

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