The sun-dappled waters next to the site of last week’s Singapore air show pulled more than a few longing glances from sweaty delegates, but it was a patch of ocean just a few hours by air to the northeast that was preoccupying military delegations at the show.

Nobody named any particular country as a potential foe. Yet the military equipment on display at the show, and the products defence contractors were most eager to discuss, hinted squarely at China.

The two years since the last Singapore show have seen Beijing grow increasingly belligerent in the South China Sea. Disregarding international law and protests from Southeast Asian neighbours, it has converted coral atolls into islands that are military bases in all but name. Chinese aircraft patrol the skies of this vast region, its submarines lurk beneath the waves and its commercial and military ships are increasingly active.

The USA speaks of restraint, but Washington’s views have little traction in Beijing, which regards the region as its own.

It was therefore no surprise that key show themes included airborne surveillance, anti-submarine warfare and maritime patrol. Worried regional governments want to know what is going on in their littoral domain, and industry senses opportunity.

Early in the week, Boeing said it has discussed maritime surveillance aircraft with several countries in the region. Saab made waves by launching its Bombardier Global 6000-based GlobalEye early warning offering, and rolled out two new candidate airframes to carry its Swordfish maritime patrol system.

The week also saw Northrop Grumman and Elbit Systems tout unmanned systems and Sikorsky talk about growing regional interest in anti-submarine warfare helicopters. Bombardier was excited by “tremendous” opportunities for special mission aircraft.

Some of these capabilities were probably aimed at Singapore – arguably the only Southeast Asian nation to recognise the importance of information to modern militaries. Still, there is clearly a broader market among regional countries concerned that the US star is fading, and aware that they will need to keep an eye on their own interests. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam each have modest militaries – and gaping maritime airpower deficiencies.

The South China Sea situation is getting serious. The region’s governments seem – finally – to be getting equally serious about building well-rounded, modern militaries in which information reigns supreme.

Source: Flight International