Originally Published 2016-05-13 10:08:05 Published on May 13, 2016
Turbulence for the Phillippines: Blimps over the South China Sea

During his recent visit to the Philippines, the United States Secretary of Defense promised delivery of a variety of sensors and communications equipment worth $42 million to the host nation. One of the critical sensors in this suite is an observation blimp that can peer across the South China Sea (SCS), providing maritime domain awareness to the Philippines.

The Philippines is one of several claimants to sovereign rights over few SCS islands; they are faced with a coercive China claiming such rights over 80 percent of the sea. China has forcefully seized control of maritime features in the SCS from both Vietnam and the Philippines. In addition, the PRC has started land reclamation projects and built artificial islands. Radars and missile batteries have been installed on some of the features, and military planes operate and land there routinely.

In 2012, China overwhelmed Philippine forces in a two month long conflict, resulting in China’s defacto control of Scarborough Shoal, located barely 140 miles off Manila. The Philippines filed a case against China before the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, challenging 15 claims from China’s so-called nine-dash line to Scarborough Shoal. The tribunal is likely to find China’s activities around the Shoal illegal.

In spite of this, China has refuted the authority of the arbitration tribunal to rule on these claims. It is reported that China is now considering construction of outposts on Scarborough Shoal. Military installations on this Shoal would allow China to control the Luzon Strait, a gateway to the Pacific and tremendously busy trade artery, therefore further consolidating its control over the SCS. The proximity of the Shoal to Manila would also allow China to monitor military installations and maneuvers on the Philippine islands, of particular interest as the US visiting forces begin to deploy.

The primary concern is the expansion of China’s coast guard and maritime militias around the Shoal to erode the Philippine legal rights like fishing, maritime trade, and exploitation of natural resources in these waters. Establishing new facts on the ground will defeat Philippines’ legal standing. Continuous monitoring of China’s actions is required for validating these assumptions and in order to respond proactively to new security threats.

A network of sensors established in and over the SCS would enable monitoring of land reclamation activities, build up of military assets on the islands, transits of coast guard and maritime militia units, oil exploration rigs, and any other object that can potentially fly or sail as China has become innovative in asserting its claims. The communications equipment offered to the Philippines will enable secure transmission of data from these sensors for faster and more transparent decision-making.

One of the critical sensor nodes in this suite is an observation blimp that can peer across the SCS using onboard radar. The blimp is a powered, gas filled lighter-that-the-air airship. It does not have a rigid structure like that of a balloon, but can instead be steered while floating in the air. Hindenburg is a famous example of these airships, which had a rigid structure.

USS Akron under construction USS Akron under construction

Historically, airships have been used for both commercial and military activities, including ferrying passengers across the Atlantic, the American Civil War, bombing raids during World War I, polar exploration, advertisement campaigns, etc. The US Navy developed the airships USS Akron and USS Macon for ocean surveillance with the ability to launch and recover aircraft, dubbed flying aircraft carriers. Most of these airships crashed, but public interest truly faded with the Hindenburg disaster. The simultaneous advent of airplanes ferrying passengers far more efficiently across the oceans sealed their fate completely.

The potential of airships to provide constant mass area surveillance renewed military interest in them. Airships were useful to coalition forces in Afghanistan, forces along the US-Mexico border, and by Israel over Gaza, just to name a few.

The US Army initiated a $2.8 billion project called the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) that uses a blimp-duo hovering about 10,000 feet and covering an area the size of Texas. One blimp is capable of providing high resolution 360 degree radar coverage while the other is used for focusing on specific targets including fixed or rotary-wing aircraft, cruise missiles, unmanned air vehicles, tactical ballistic missiles etc. JLENS is designed to connect to the nation’s air defense networks for faster response to incoming threats.

Last October, one of the prototype JLENS blimps broke loose from the mooring station. Without the steering controls in place, the blimp dragged part of its tether across Pennsylvania causing power outages and damages to private property. Two F-16s were scrambled to monitor the movement of the blimp until it deflated and crashed into the trees.

Already looked upon unfavorably for cost overruns, the US Congress awarded a mere $2.5 million instead of the $45 million sought by the Pentagon, a measure supposedly aimed at killing the program.

Although details are yet to emerge regarding the size and observational scope of the blimp promised to the Philippines, this set of incidents and accidents points to knowledge gaps about the inherent risks of airships that contain highly inflammable gases and are prone to various atmospheric phenomena. Given this tenuous history of blimps, a loose one free floating over the SCS would invite further aggression from the PRC. It is in the interest of all parties to avoid such a situation. How can the US prove the blimp platform has been rigorously tested, despite Congress having killed the program? This is a critical question for the Philippines. It may be wiser to avoid creating, even accidentally, another tense situation in an already contested environment. Therefore the Philippines should explore additional options to improve its maritime domain awareness and security. Such options include acquiring patrol boats and light aircraft that can not only provide the Philippines maritime domain awareness, but also enhance the security of its territory and possessions.

This commentary originally appeared in CIMSEC.

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Adnan Shihab-Eldin

Adnan Shihab-Eldin

Adnan Shihab-Eldin Oxford Institute for Energy Studies

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