MELBOURNE, Australia — Maritime patrol and maritime surveillance aircraft are a vital tool in ensuring what is known as maritime domain awareness, and they serve as a complementary asset for navies and coast guards protecting their nation’s maritime interests.
The aircraft’s chief advantages are speed and operating altitude, which bestow faster response times in getting to where they are needed, as well as improved sensor performance compared to seagoing vessels.
Maritime domain awareness, or MDA, is defined by the International Maritime Organization as the “effective understanding of anything that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment” of all areas and things “of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterway.” These include “all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, and vessels and other conveyances.”
In recent years, the issue of MDA in Southeast Asia has received significant attention. The Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea run through the region, and the importance of both waterways to global maritime trade cannot be understated, as they’re the fastest routes through which ships travel from Europe, the Middle East and Africa to the East Asian economic powerhouses of China, Japan and South Korea.
The numbers bear this out. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimated that roughly one-third of all global shipping passed through the South China Sea in 2015, while the U.S. Energy Information Administration said that in the same period, 16 million barrels of petroleum and other liquids transited the Strait of Malacca each day.
However, maritime security challenges abound in the waters of this vital route. Disputes over the ownership of potentially resource-rich islands in the South China Sea — involving China and six other regional states — as well as illegal fishing are the most prominent challenges. But they’re not alone.
Modern-day piracy along the Southeast Asian coastline and particularly in the Strait of Malacca is an issue. At its narrowest point in the Phillips Channel of the Singapore Strait, the waterway is about 1.7 miles wide, which, in addition to forcing ships to move slowly, rendering them vulnerable to pirate attacks, creates a natural bottleneck with the potential for collisions and grounding, and thus oil spills.
Elsewhere in the region, tourists to the coastal resorts along the eastern half of Malaysia occasionally become kidnapping victims to gangs that travel by boat from the southern Philippines. Separatist insurgents have also find sanctuary in eastern Malaysia.
Despite the myriad challenges, regional nations have not actively pursued maritime patrol aircraft, or MPA, preferring instead to prioritize other acquisitions in the face of budget requirements.
Singapore, one of the more prosperous regional states, was at one point considered a potential operator of the Boeing P-8A multimission aircraft. It previously sought to acquire a new aircraft type as a replacement for its Fokker 50 twin-engine turboprop aircraft, although that has been put on hold.
It currently operates a fleet of nine Fokker 50s configured in a mix of MPAs and transports acquired in the 1990s, which it decided against modernizing a few years ago.
Instead of costly, sophisticated aircraft like the P-8A, regional operators are most likely to turn to less complex platforms with an emphasis on the basic maritime surveillance mission.
For example, the Philippines recently accepted refurbished Beechcraft TC-90 aircraft donated by Japan as well as Cessna 208 surveillance aircraft paid for by the U.S. Defense Department under a security assistance program. These aircraft have a lot of the advanced equipment found on other MPAs. The TC-90s are dependent on the eyes of the crew while the Cessnas are fitted with an electro-optical turret to aid surveillance missions.
Malaysia also had a longstanding requirement for a new armed MPA, with that need gaining more attention after the 2016 crash of one of its Beechcraft King Air 200 planes used for maritime surveillance. But a budget crunch means any acquisition effort has been put on ice, and instead Malaysia will likely convert a small number of its Indonesian-built IPTN/CASA CN-235 turboprop transports into maritime surveillance aircraft.
Such a conversion could make the five CN-235s similar to those operated by neighboring Indonesia’s Air Force and Navy, which were modified by Indonesian Aerospace in cooperation with U.S. company Integrated Surveillance and Defense.
And there’s an advantage to these modifications: Having platforms able to perform a number of different missions could be the key for regional nations seeking a versatile MPA option.
Some of Singapore’s Fokker 50 transports, which can be fitted as troop carriers, VIP transports or intelligence-gathering aircraft, can also be converted into an “MPA-lite” configuration by equipping each with a belly radar.
Furthermore, operators of the Airbus C295 Persuader aircraft, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, could realize the advantages of operating a single aircraft type in both transport and MPA roles, given the C295′s MPA variant has sufficient cabin space to act as a transport.
And Lockheed Martin could market its proposed SC-130J Sea Hercules MPA to potential customers looking to also replace their older C-130 Hercules transports. The company’s proposal sees a roll-on/roll-off pallet containing MPA mission systems and operator consoles that could be switched out as needs dictate, allowing the C-130 to swing between the airlifter and MPA roles.
Indeed, amid limited budgets and competing priorities, it may be up to industry to come up solutions to address a market segment that exists, but has yet to be satisfied.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.