Photo: Lockheed Martin
Feb 16, 2012 By Leithen Francis defense technology international
Singapore - Concerns over China’s claims to the South China Sea are sparking an arms race among its Southeast Asian neighbors, some of which have maritime patrol, airborne early warning and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft high on their priority lists.
China has laid claim to most of the South China Sea, a body of water that includes vital sea lanes and under which lie rich deposits of oil and gas.
In May of last year, Chinese ships reportedly cut the cables of Binh Minh 02, an oil-surveying vessel within Vietnam’s 200-nm exclusive economic zone and operated by the Vietnam Oil & Gas Group. In the same month, two Chinese fighters allegedly entered Philippine airspace, an intrusion related to the disputed Spratly Islands. The Philippine navy also found wooden posts erected on Amy Douglas Bank, Reed Bank and Boxall Reef—all within Philippine-claimed waters. The navy, which promptly removed the posts, accused China of placing them there.
Vietnam’s foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, and the Philippines foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, met in Hanoi last year to discuss implementation of a defense cooperation agreement.
The dispute with China has led the Philippines and Vietnam to seek closer defense ties with the U.S., a remarkable development in terms of U.S.-Vietnam relations considering their history. It seems that memories of the Vietnam War are no longer a stumbling block. On Sept. 19, Vietnam’s deputy defense minister, Nguyen Chi Vinh, and the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, Robert Scher, signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at boosting military cooperation.
Sources say the Vietnamese are seeking to buy ASW aircraft and have shown interest in the Lockheed Martin P-3. The Southeast Asian nation wants the P-3s to protect its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea and to help stop Chinese submarines from entering Vietnamese waters. China’s largest submarine base is on the southern tip of Hainan Island, just off the northern Vietnam coast.
Vietnam has a 3,444-km (2,135-mi.) coastline, so it needs long-range aircraft. Advanced sonar-detection equipment also is required to combat China’s increasingly advanced submarines. For ASW, Vietnam has been using four Beriev Be-12 amphibious aircraft that it received in 1981, as well as dozens of Kamov Ka-25/-27 helicopters.
When the P-3s last operated in Vietnam during the war, Cam Ranh Bay coincidentally was their main base. The U.S. Navy used P-3As to patrol the coastline in search of gunboats and Chinese trawlers providing supplies to the Vietcong hiding in South Vietnam.
The other contender for Vietnam’s ASW requirement is the Airbus Military C295. The Spaniards have already developed a relationship there, having sold three Airbus Military C212 maritime patrol aircraft to the Vietnam marine police. The first aircraft was delivered late last year.
The Philippine air force is also seeking to buy maritime patrol aircraft. Some of the models being considered include the Alenia ATR 42MP, Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350ER, Airbus CN235, Viking Air Twin Otter and Bombardier Q-series.
The country’s leaders have also talked up the prospect of the Philippines once again procuring fighter aircraft. The Philippines has had no fighter aircraft since 2005 when it retired its last Northrop F-5.
Philippines President Benigno Aquino, 3rd, disclosed in December that he will be visiting the U.S. early this year and plans to ask U.S. President Barack Obama for military assistance. “I will meet President Obama next year, perhaps by April. I will remind him of our strategic partnership and he might remember that we don’t have a fighter [jet],” Aquino said in a speech to Philippine air force personnel late in 2011. He added that he will ask the U.S. to donate used fighter aircraft to the Philippines, under an arrangement similar to that between the U.S. and Indonesia. The U.S. last year agreed to donate 24 second-hand Lockheed Martin F-16A/Bs to Indonesia, which could then pay to upgrade them to the C/D standard.
Malaysia also has a requirement for fighters and is seeking to buy 18 new aircraft to replace its MiG-29s. The contenders are the Boeing F/A-18E/F, Saab Gripen, Dassault Rafale, Sukhoi Su-30, Sukhoi Su-35 and Eurofighter Typhoon.
The MiG-29s are stationed at Kuantan AFB, in West Malaysia overlooking the South China Sea. If Malaysia ever has an armed conflict with China, it is likely that the fighter squadron at Kuantan will be at the front line. East and West Malaysia are separated by the South China Sea, and Malaysia has a requirement for maritime patrol and airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft to monitor its exclusive maritime economic zone. Malaysia’s defense minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, says Malaysia has a requirement for three AEW aircraft, one each to be stationed in East and West Malaysia and one standby.
Northrop Grumman is proposing to sell the E-2D, Saab is promoting its Saab Erieye radar mounted on an Embraer EMB-145, and Airbus Military is pushing the C295 AEW. Lockheed Martin U.K. and Thales, meanwhile, are each proposing that Malaysia use one of the air force’s existing aircraft, such as a Lockheed Martin C-130, and upgrade it with AEW capabilities using roll-on, roll-off mission systems.
Malaysia’s air force chief, Gen. Rodzali bin Daud, says “It is important to maintain a high degree of situational awareness and central to this is AEW.” Malaysia is relying on ground-based radar supplemented by some Beechcraft King Air 350s fitted with Thales radar, but these small aircraft have limited flying range. Rodzali also says: “Land-based radar’s lack of mobility puts it second to airborne systems.”
Malaysia has a requirement for ASW aircraft as well. Its navy has stated it wants to buy six ASW helicopters. It is considering the Sikorsky MH-60R and the AgustaWestland AW159. Defense Minister Ahmad told DTI’s sister publication Aviation Week & Space Technology in December that “the project is in our pipeline, but because of budget constraints, it hasn’t been given a priority [go-ahead] yet.” Industry executives say the government may be waiting until after the next national election, expected sometime in 2012, before moving ahead with this procurement.
In fact, this is the case with all the other requirements. Malaysia will only allocate a budget and select a winner for its AEW and fighter requirements after the elections.
Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) is also still waiting for a budget for the five maritime patrol aircraft it plans to acquire on long-term wet leases. Three types are in the running—the RUAG 228NG, Cessna Grand Caravan and Alenia ATR 42MP.
Singapore uses Fokker 50s for maritime patrol and has one of the most advanced AEW capabilities in the region, thanks to its Gulfstream G550s fitted with AEW mission equipment from Israel Aerospace Industries’ Elta Systems. For ASW, it has Sikorsky S-70Bs, but industry executives say is also planning to buy fixed-wing ASW aircraft (see p. 23).
The island nation, unlike other countries in Southeast Asia, has no territorial disputes with China. But Singapore, which is dependent on sea trade for its livelihood, can ill afford to have submarines blocking its sea lanes.
China has been adding Shang-class nuclear-powered subs, while India has announced that it plans to buy six more diesel-electric models. (Russia’s arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, disclosed that it will be proposing Russian-built Amur 650-class subs.) Six French Scorpene vessels from an earlier tender are under construction in India.
Singapore’s closest neighbors have also been adding submarines, largely in response to China’s submarine buildup.
Vietnam’s defense minister, Gen. Phung Quang Thanh, says his country has six Kilo-class diesel-powered subs on order from Russia. Malaysia recently added three submarines: two new Scorpene-class subs jointly built by French and Spanish companies, and one reconditioned ex-French navy Agosta-class vessel. Indonesia has two German-built Cakra-class subs and in December ordered three submarines from South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering. Thailand’s navy is eyeing second-hand Type U206As from Germany, according to local news reports.