Rupal Kalebere

In May 2022, the Quad nations – the United States, Australia, Japan, and India – took a momentous step toward ensuring security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) was established to combat illegal fishing, address humanitarian crises, enhance maritime security, promote marine conservation, and tackle related issues in the area. A cornerstone of this initiative involves utilizing commercial space-based collection to improve information sharing and the collective understanding of regional activities. While the IPMDA’s focus is primarily on non-military objectives, integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) could greatly enhance its capabilities and contribute to its success.

Advantages abound when considering UAS integration within IPMDA’s framework. Commercial space-based collection, despite its merits, has inherent limitations in terms of information security, responsiveness, and resolution when compared to classified government systems. As IPMDA strives to enhance regional awareness, it must acknowledge the potential risks posed by disruptions from opposing actors and the vulnerabilities stemming from dependence on commercial firms. Integrating UAS would mitigate these disadvantages, providing persistent and granular surveillance capabilities to supplement satellite-based data.

UAS offer a unique advantage by providing continuous full-motion video and high-resolution imagery, which satellites can’t achieve due to intermittent revisiting. The combination of multiple sensors, like cameras and signals intelligence (SIGINT) pods, enables UAS to track and fix targets independently in near real-time. This real-time correlation is invaluable, something that commercial satellites currently lack. Incorporating UAS into IPMDA’s arsenal would drastically improve its surveillance capacity, even without pursuing military objectives.

Consider the South China Sea (SCS), an area of paramount importance for regional security. An operational analysis highlights that while commercial satellites offer broad coverage across the SCS, they struggle to provide in-depth data. A targeted UAS approach, on the other hand, would achieve deeper collection but require significant resources and bases to cover the entire region. Therefore, the optimal solution involves integrating UAS as a supplementary tool rather than a replacement for commercial space-based collection.

The feasibility of deploying a dozen UAS in the Philippines for comprehensive SCS surveillance might prove impractical due to budget constraints and political considerations. Therefore, a pragmatic approach is combining the strengths of commercial satellites with UAS capabilities. This approach strikes a balance between effectiveness and feasibility, as it would enable IPMDA to maximize its surveillance efforts within its operational limitations. This cooperative approach could be cost-shared among the Quad members willing to contribute.

In expanding the effectiveness of IPMDA, UAS basing locations play a crucial role. While Philippines-based UAS operations significantly enhance awareness, they aren’t sufficient to maintain comprehensive maritime domain awareness in the SCS. If hosting UAS in the Philippines or Vietnam isn’t feasible, stand-off UAS operating from Japan, Australia, Singapore, or Malaysia offer viable alternatives. These locations allow SCS-bound aircraft to traverse significant geopolitical areas, enhancing the collection’s value and reach. Depending upon the asset classification and drawing upon India’s long experience in operating both UAS and ISR satellites it may be useful to locate and operate UAS form the A&N Islands and from Lakshadweep/Karwar for optimising the reach and footprint of these systems.

IPMDA’s mission, as it stands, involves sharing unclassified data collected by commercial satellites to strengthen regional fusion centers and information sharing. However, for IPMDA to reach its full potential, it must evolve beyond solely relying on commercial collection. The integration of UAS introduces a level of sophistication and effectiveness that commercial satellites alone cannot achieve. By recognizing the strengths and limitations of each source, IPMDA can develop a comprehensive surveillance network that offers a clearer picture of activities in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Quad’s commitment to the IPMDA initiative demonstrates the intent to foster stability and security. This partnership is not only about financial contributions but also about leveraging the best available technologies. While UAS integration may require additional investment, the returns in terms of enhanced regional awareness, better information sharing, and more effective response capabilities are substantial.

In conclusion, the creation of IPMDA is a significant stride towards maintaining stability and security in the Indo-Pacific. The partnership’s focus on commercial space-based collection is commendable, but it’s crucial to recognize the limitations and vulnerabilities associated with this approach. Integrating unmanned aircraft systems into IPMDA offers a compelling solution that enhances the partnership’s effectiveness and capabilities.

By adopting a cooperative strategy that combines the strengths of both commercial satellites and UAS, IPMDA can usher in a new era of maritime security in the region. The world’s eyes are on the Quad nations as they collaborate to shape the future of the Indo-Pacific, and by embracing this integrated approach, they can truly make a difference.


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