Rising tensions fuel Indo-Pacific arms sales
A US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II performs an aerial demonstration during the Singapore Airshow.
Ministry of Defense Photo
SINGAPORE — As tensions rise in the Indo-Pacific and China increasingly intimidates its neighbors, nations in the region are looking for capabilities that will set them up for success in possible future conflicts.
Although efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic have slowed arms sales, relatively low turnout at the Singapore Airshow in February did not deter attendees from laying the groundwork for a better military preparation.
“It’s really the target market in the world right now,” said Daniel Darling, senior analyst for Australia and Pacific countries at market research firm Forecast International.
The region is a hotbed for gray-area warfare — military operations below the threshold of large-scale conventional warfare, Darling said.
“In particular, around Singapore you have the South China Sea and transshipment channels which put a lot of pressure on resource-dependent countries,” he said.
In the Defense Ministry’s annual report on China’s military might, released in November, Beijing’s anti-access and area denial capabilities are strongest within the First Island Chain – which includes the area. close to Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines – but its leaders have ambitions to extend its reach even further.
The People’s Republic of China “begins to deploy significant capabilities capable of conducting operations up to the second island chain and seeks to build its capabilities to reach further into the Pacific Ocean and around the world”, according to the report. The second island chain includes the islands of Guam and Micronesia.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt defense budgets across the region, nations feel compelled to build up at least a minimal deterrent against Chinese aggression despite the high costs, Darling said.
The pandemic “has definitely inhibited … growth in defense procurement spending, but nonetheless, one thing to keep in mind is that every country hedges around China in one way or another,” did he declare.
If countries in the region are ready to step up military operations to counter China, aligning their capabilities with those of the United States could help, industry leaders told the Singapore airshow.
The fifth-generation F-35 stealth joint strike fighter is a good example, according to Lockheed Martin. Exploitation of the fighter aircraft opens opportunities for new partnerships and alliances between international customers and the United States, said Steven Over, director of business development for the F-35 in the region.
“We don’t want to speak on behalf of the US government, but I will tell you that the customers we offer the F-35 [to] consider this an interoperable coalition capability across the region,” he said.
By 2035, more than 300 F-35s will be operating in the region, the vast majority of which will be owned by foreign partner nations, Over said.
“It’s really about providing a coalition capability to deter aggression,” he said.
Singapore has four F-35 jets, while closer US allies such as South Korea, Australia and Japan have ordered more than 200 combined platforms, according to Lockheed.
Additionally, strengthening relationships with allies and partners is a critical part of the joint all-area command and control initiative that the U.S. military is focused on. The concept encourages the development of technology that connects sensors to shooters to enable over-matching of information in a contested environment. If allies have the same aircraft, that facilitates the JADC2 capability, said Tim Cahill, senior vice president of global business development and strategy at Lockheed. However, more work needs to be done to standardize technology requirements to make it easier for nations’ legacy systems to work together.
“One of the things we’re doing now as a company is actually investing heavily in all future standards, especially for data,” he said.
Building software around platform data management early will avoid costly additions later, he noted.
“The things that are going to be really, really expensive and important will be what software goes into each of those nodes, for example, and what platforms you’re using that have the core sensor capability,” he mentioned.
It should be relatively easy to convince allies to make upfront investments, said John Clark, vice president of international business development for the company’s missile and fire control business division.
“Customers always place a high priority on interoperability with the US military,” he said. “It helps us make sure the systems are communicating with each other.”
However, military partnerships with the United States are not assured in all countries. For example, Singapore trains regularly with US forces and permanently bases squadrons of its aircraft in the United States. But the country also has defense agreements with China. Singapore and Beijing signed a renewed defense agreement in 2019, which established regular dialogue between defense leaders in addition to partnerships in logistical support.
One of the biggest deals at the Singapore Airshow happened before the doors opened. Indonesia has confirmed an order for a fleet of 42 French-made Dassault Rafale fighter jets worth an estimated $8 billion.
Following this announcement, the US Agency for Security and Defense Cooperation announced a possible Foreign Military Sale with Indonesia for 36 F-15ID aircraft at a price of $13.9 billion.
Indonesia is a “force for political stability and economic progress” in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a February statement from the DSCA. “Helping Indonesia develop and maintain a strong and effective self-defense capability is vital to U.S. national interests.”
Countries in the region are also looking for improved reconnaissance aircraft. Maritime patrol platforms are force multipliers because of their ability to cover large swathes of the Pacific Ocean and monitor maritime approaches, Darling said.
At the airshow, Israel Aerospace Industries displayed a model of its patrol air vehicle, the ELI-3360, while a US Navy P-8 submarine killer – built by Boeing – sat on the tarmac in a static display.
Meanwhile, the display of Israeli weapons systems at the air show could signal arms deal trends for Singapore – despite the island nation being more focused on maritime capabilities than Israel, Darling added.
“Singapore tends to model their procurement processes on Israel, and they tend to look at what’s happening in Israel, because Israel is almost [always] in some form of conflict or high readiness of military activity,” he said.
Elbit Systems unveiled a new variant of its Skylark 3 Hybrid small tactical unmanned aerial vehicle at the airshow. The drone can operate for up to 18 hours, using the combustion engine for speed and the electric motor to operate above its area of interest, according to the company.
While most sales at airshows are determined before the event, tensions between Ukraine and Russia ahead of the conference could have led to more meetings with customers, Darling said. Prior to the rally, Russia had yet to invade its neighbor, but as of press time, the United States is imposing major economic sanctions on Moscow.
“You will have more and more potential buyers who are more interested in certain assets,” Darling said. Some customers are “increasingly looking for a range of military equipment…and now they are more interested than ever in pursuing high-end capabilities.”
Already, South Korea, Australia and India are Indo-Pacific nations that are among the world’s top 10 arms importers, according to the International Peace Research Institute’s 2020 report. of Stockholm entitled “Trends in international arms transfers”.
Meanwhile, the show highlighted the strengthening of US alliances in the region, including nations participating in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which is a defense cooperation agreement between the United States, India, Australia and Japan. It’s a relationship that Boeing’s defense business is watching closely, said Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security.
Company representatives in each of the countries keep abreast of local priorities as they relate to Quad’s business, she noted. “It’s up to us as an industry to listen and make sure we’re delivering products and services that meet the needs of those customers,” she said.
For example, Caret pointed to the Indian Navy and Air Force’s search for multi-role fighters. Boeing plans to offer several platforms as potential options.
Meanwhile, Indo-Pacific countries are increasingly considering and investing in the durability of their aircraft, according to Caret.
Traditional government programs for weapons systems take too long, potentially compromising aircraft quality and future sustainment, she noted.
“If we can steer the conversation to how quickly we get the capability, … [customers will be able to better interact and operate] with allies, partner nations, and really deliver the assured force and capability that they want,” she said.
Boeing is working with an engineering firm to improve efficiency in Singapore, said Ted Colbert, CEO of Boeing Global Services.
“We are currently working to bring together our data, their data, to create better preventive and predictive analytics and to create space to support their customers,” he said.
Meanwhile, Singapore and other Indo-Pacific countries are recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding their own aerospace production capacities. Ahead of the show, Rolls-Royce and GE Aviation announced they would hire more workers in Singapore to improve aircraft production in the region.
Other Pacific nations, such as Australia and Indonesia, are trying to develop their own defense manufacturing and production capabilities.
Much of the defense industrial base in Asia-Pacific is limited in scope and comparable to Turkey’s industrial base of 15 or 20 years ago, Darling said.
Topics: Global defense market