Network of Surveillance Drones Would Deter Beijing’s Aggression in Pacific: Report

April 15, 2020 Updated: April 19, 2020

A network of drones that constantly monitor hot spots in the Pacific would help blunt Beijing’s military aggression and geopolitical ambitions in the region, according to a report by a Washington think tank.

The report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) also recommended the same approach could temper Russian aggression in Europe.

Like having an airborne CCTV camera on every geopolitical corner, the fleet of 92 drones would provide constant surveillance.

With every move being watched, adversaries couldn’t rely on muddying the waters with fake information and denials to buy time and grab territory, such as what happened with Russia’s military action in Ukraine, according to the report.

CSBA calls its novel concept “deterrence by detection.”

“The logic that underpins the approach should be familiar to policemen and parents,” according to the report, published on April 14. “It is that potential transgressors are less likely to act if they know they are being watched.”

The idea is similar to the increasingly popular idea of using numerous simpler, cheaper, unmanned platforms to outwit adversaries that have pitted their military might against the large, expensive U.S. platforms such as aircraft carriers.

CSBA states that the project could be achieved using existing unmanned aircraft. It estimates the cost at about $1.4 billion, which could be shared between partner nations.

Epoch Times Photo
A U.S. Air Force RQ-1 Predator unmanned reconnaissance aircraft sits on a tarmac. (U.S. Air Force/Getty Images)

Visible By Design

“Imagine a network of unmanned systems monitoring 24-7 activity in the South China Sea,” report author and CSBA CEO Thomas Mahnken told The Epoch Times in March.

“That sort of 24-7 situational awareness, I would argue, could be a real deterrent to malign action,” said Mahnken, who is a former Pentagon official and a member of the National Defense Strategy Commission.

The United States currently relies on satellites and manned aircraft for its surveillance. But these are very expensive and give “only periodic coverage of areas of interest,” according to the CSBA report.

The surveillance drones, with minimal defenses and no stealth capabilities, would be vulnerable, says Mahnken. But that keeps costs down, and like CCTV cameras, ensures that the deterrence is visible.

“China could choose to shoot them down, but in so doing, they would have to cross a threshold,” he said. “They wouldn’t kill anybody, but they would be seen taking this aggressive action. So the bumper sticker we have for this idea is that we call it ‘deterrence by detection.'”

“In all-out war, you want to be stealthy, you don’t want to be a lucrative target. For the gray zone, there’s an advantage to being seen.”

RQ-4 Global Hawk Unmanned Aircraft System Presentation
A full-scale model of The RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned plane is displayed during a presentation at PiO Exhibition Center in Tokyo, Japan, on March 24, 2010. (Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)

The gray zone that Mahnken mentioned refers to military aggression and other actions that don’t cross the line into conventional warfare, but achieve the same strategic aims. China’s building of militarized islands and Russia’s “little green men” in Ukraine are examples.

In 2018, the Trump administration published the National Defense Strategy, which stated for the first time that the U.S. military was pivoting and modernizing to tackle “great power competition” with Russia and China. The document also called for the military to modernize and adapt to wrestle in the gray zone for geopolitical advantages.

“China has used paramilitary naval forces, such as fishing fleets and its maritime militia, to harass its maritime neighbors’ military and commercial vessels in order to further its claims over disputed territory,” the CSBA report states.

Beijing has also flown fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, conducted sorties with its bombers over the Miyako Strait, and also built militarized islands in disputed waters, notes the report.

“Russia, for its part, has employed military and paramilitary forces to seize the Crimean Peninsula and support a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. It has used jammers and other forms of electronic attack to disrupt NATO exercises,” the report stated. “Such operations often prove difficult to identify as they unfold, particularly since China and Russia obscure their motives and roles. Consequently, the United States and its allies have struggled to counter their actions before it is already too late.”

6 Zones

CSBA proposes six zones for such a system to be set up: “the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, and East China Sea in the Asia-Pacific and the Baltics, Black Sea, and eastern Mediterranean Sea in Europe.”

According to the think tank, the number of airframes needed for their idea “is well within reach.”

“CSBA analysis shows that implementing ‘deterrence by detection’ would require 46 airframes in the Western Pacific and another 46 in Europe, for a total of 92 aircraft.”

“Split among the United States and its many allies and partners in the Western Pacific and Europe, the estimated cost per country should remain affordable relative to the expected security gains.”

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