An ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea over a stretch that comprises more than 750 reefs, banks, and shoals known more generally as the Spratly Islands continues to heat up.
Late 2015 saw a severe escalation when the United States announced that it would send warships directly into a zone which China lays claim to. The U.S. has continued to counter China’s claim to sovereign territory, which (officially) dates from 2009, with a series of military maneuvers that many believe could spiral dangerously out of control.
Perhaps emboldened by a lack of overt resistance, the U.S. subsequently upped the ante of its strike force by sending three nuclear-equipped B-2 Stealth Bombers this past March. As reported by The Free Thought Project, even that wasn’t enough, as the overall mission was backed by the largest exercise of its kind, just outside the contested territory:
The exercise, known as Ssang Yong, which means ‘Twin Dragons,’ consists of approximately 9,200 U.S. Marines and 3,100 U.S. Navy personnel who will work alongside 4,500 ROK Marine Corps, 3,000 ROK Navy, 100 Australian Army and 60 Royal New Zealand Army forces.
“The sheer number of personnel involved is extremely impressive,” said Capt. Ed Thompson, commander, Amphibious Squadron 11. “There are a lot of moving parts and things that need to align for a successful exercise. When they do, it is truly amazing to see how we operate together.”
Evidently, one additional “moving part” is now being considered: sea drones.
In recent months, we have heard more about the U.S. military – and its allies – turning attention to the sea as a compliment to its development of unmanned aircraft. Just last week, DARPA unveiled plans for a flotilla of 132-foot “Sea Hunter” drones that could roam the seas of the world within 5 years if all goes according to plan. It would be the latest advancement in what already exists under the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing (CARACaS), which in effect creates robot swarms that can identify and intercept perceived threats.
Meanwhile, US allies will be engaging in Unmanned Warrior 2016, which occurs off the Scottish Coast in October, indicating that the sea very well could be the staging ground for a kickoff to a major conflict.
The United States is apparently confident enough right now to announce that it will indeed prepare to launch submarine drones into the contested space to augment its manned ship presence.
If it seems at all strange that such an announcement would be made public, as clearly the “enemy” is listening far closer than general news readership would be, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Work both have admitted that this is a propaganda campaign which is viewed as its own form of deterrence. Here is an official for the Center for a New American Security, Shawn Brimley, adding his voice to the concept:
The idea is that if we were ever to get into a bust-up in the South China Sea, the Chinese would not know for sure what sort of capabilities the US might have … This might have some deterrent impact on the potential for provocative behaviour.
Moreover, the direct action of the U.S. is being coupled with its intent to strengthen regional allies such as the Philippines, which is likely to only make the geopolitical and economic implications more complex.
It appears to be a very dangerous game being played. The region has seen violence in the past, and it is clearly a gamble that advanced weaponry – or at least announcing it – will indeed have a deterrent effect, as opposed to it being seen as a provocation that threatens to cross a final line.
When reports that the U.S. was planning to challenge China’s island claims surfaced in May (2015), a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson urged “relevant countries to refrain from taking risky and provocative action,” according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
Since that statement there has only been escalation. Feel free to leave your comments below on where this confrontation is likely to lead.
(Here are videos of some of the technology which could be slated for the region)