Washington is supplying four Southeast Asian countries with 34 aerial drones through security assistance funds from the U.S. government, State Department officials have confirmed.
The United States is sending a U.S. $47.9 million package of ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles to the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, with officials in Manila and Kuala Lumpur saying the drones will be used for surveillance of local waterways, including the disputed South China Sea.
“Per Acting Secretary Shanahan’s recent announcement, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have purchased up to 34 Scan Eagle Unmanned Aerial Systems under the Foreign Military Sales system,” a State Department official told BenarNews, referring to Patrick Shanahan, the acting American defense chief.
“These purchases were funded by … security assistance funding, and not national funds,” the official said.
On May 31, the U.S. Defense Department (DoD) released information on its website saying it had awarded a contract to Boeing subsidiary Insitu to build the drones and deliver them to the four countries by March 2022.
The contract information publicized by the DoD stated that the order combined purchases for the governments of Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam under the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales program.
The program “is a form of security assistance authorized by the Arms Export Control Act,” according to the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA).
Under the contract, Malaysia will acquire 12 ScanEagle drones, the Philippines and Indonesia will each get eight of them, and Vietnam will get six.
In Jakarta, Ministry of Defense officials did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment from BenarNews.
The portion of the drone package destined for Kuala Lumpur is valued at U.S. $19.3 million, but the aircraft will be paid for entirely by U.S. funds, via the U.S. government’s Maritime Security Initiative (MSI), the Malaysian Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
The United States, through MSI, “provided assistance in the form of assets and training to friendly nations including Malaysia to enhance the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) in the Southeast Asian region,” the ministry said.
MSI, under the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act, aims to build up the capacity of American partner nations in the South China Sea region. The act targets five countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – for assistance and training paid for by American funding, according to the DSCA.
“As a maritime nation, it is essential for Malaysia to have intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to monitor its strategic waterways in the Strait of Malacca, South China Sea and Sulu Sea,” the Malaysian ministry said.
It emphasized, however, that Kuala Lumpur would collaborate with any country, even Beijing, to boost its security and maritime intelligence capabilities.
“In line with Malaysia’s stance to not pick sides and to build friendly relations with everyone, Malaysia welcomes defense cooperation with all interested parties, including the U.S. and China, to ensure the safety and stability of the Southeast Asian region,” it said.
The eight ScanEagle drones destined for Manila, meanwhile, follow the March 2018 delivery of six of those unmanned aircraft that were provided by Washington through a U.S. government grant program, according to the American embassy.
The first batch was delivered after Manila had received U.S. intelligence support in helping Philippine government forces drive out Islamic State-linked militants from the southern city of Marawi in 2017.
“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,” a senior Philippine defense source told BenarNews, referring to the South China Sea.
Beijing claims most of maritime region, and has been expanding and militarizing structures it built in the sea, despite earlier agreements to halt all construction activities. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have territorial claims in the strategic waterway through which more than U.S. $3 billion of trade passes annually.