By Imran Vittachi
The United States is selling more drones to the Philippines, which will be used in part to monitor the Chinese presence in the disputed South China Sea, Filipino sources said Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) last week announced an order for 34 ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles on behalf of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam at a total price tag of U.S. $47.9 million.
The Philippines already acquired six ScanEagle drones in 2018 after receiving intelligence support from the U.S. in defeating Islamic State militants who took over the southern city of Marawi for five months in 2017.
The intel assistance helped erode an anti-U.S. posture taken by President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, a senior Philippine defense source told BenarNews.
“Manila had no way but to accept the American help. Later, Duterte reversed his anti-American stance,” the source said.
“The help was first geared toward monitoring militants in the wake of Marawi, but the help has evolved toward the SCS, and the heavy Chinese presence there,” he added, referring to the South China Sea.
Negotiations for the purchase of the drones had been going on for a long time, and would likely go through, a Philippine defense expert told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
“It’s not expensive tech,” he said of the eight drones earmarked for Manila under the new deal at a cost of $9.6 million.
Under the package announced by the Pentagon on May 31, Malaysia will acquire 12 of the drones for $19.3 million; Indonesia will get eight of them for $9.1 million; and Vietnam a half-dozen ScanEagles for $9.7 million, according to the DoD. Although the drones are identical, the orders include spare repair parts, tools and spare payloads, with each country issuing orders based on their tactical requirement.
“The announcement marks the first time that military equipment will be transferred to Vietnam following the end of a U.S. arms embargo imposed since the communist takeover there in 1975,” DefenseNews reported, noting that the embargo was fully lifted three years ago.
The contract through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program was awarded to Insitu, a subsidiary of the Boeing Co. and production of the 34 drones is scheduled for completion in March 2022, the Pentagon said in a news release.
The ScanEagle weighs only about 40 pounds (18.1 kg) and is about 4-feet (1.2-meters) long with a wingspan of a little more than 10 feet (3 meters). It can fly to an altitude of 16,000 feet (4,877 meters), UPI reported.
Lt. Col. David Eastburn, a spokesman for the Pentagon, declined to comment on whether the package of drones to the four Southeast Asian nations was tied to U.S. efforts to monitor or contain Chinese movements in the South China Sea. Citing DoD policy, he referred BenarNews to the U.S. State Department.
State department officials did not immediately respond to questions from BenarNews on Thursday. An Indonesian Defense Ministry spokesman had no immediate comment; Malaysian Deputy Defense Minister Liew Chin Tong told BenarNews, “the ministry will issue a statement on Friday on the matter.”
‘Boosting maritime domain awareness’
The package of 34 drones “would afford greater intelligence gathering capabilities potentially curbing Chinese activity in the [South China Sea] region,” according to a report by Reuters last week.
In the Philippines, the BusinessMirror news website reported on Wednesday that the Filipino military was “looking forward to further boosting its maritime domain awareness, especially in the West Philippine Sea, its humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief operations and counterterrorism capabilities,” through the addition of the eight other U.S.-made drones.
The West Philippine Sea is what Filipinos call the South China Sea.
Beijing claims most of the mineral-rich sea region, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. China has been expanding and militarizing structures it built in the region, despite earlier agreements to halt all construction activities. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have territorial claims in the strategic waterway.
In March 2018, when the Philippines acquired its first six ScanEagles, Filipino Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the drones would be vital “in the conduct of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations in support of a variety of missions such as territorial defense, security and stability.”
“With a number of security issues confronting our country, there is a need to upgrade our nation’s armed forces and to establish a more credible defense,” Manila’s defense chief said then, adding that the ScanEagle drones were a way to deter “those who want to wage war against our country.”
The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, has been sailing ships through the sea region in a show of force in the face of Chinese activities and to uphold the international principle of freedom of navigation.
On June 1, Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told a regional security meeting in Singapore that Washington was investing money in bolstering the defensive positions of allies in the region and pushing for free navigation in the South China Sea.
“Behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end,” he said during speech at the Shangri-La annual forum.
“Until it does, we stand against a myopic, narrow, and parochial vision of the future, and we stand for the free and open order that has benefited us all – including China.”
Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.