SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The market for spy planes and surveillance platforms is buoyant in Southeast Asia, where countries are facing off against China – and each other - in the resource-rich South China Sea, industry insiders at the Singapore Airshow said.
Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam have all been seeking information from suppliers, trade sources said, as maritime patrol aircraft and intelligence gathering platforms become more of a priority.
Some of the kit is needed for traditional activities such as counter-piracy, fisheries protection or disaster response, but China's growing assertiveness in the region's seas is looming increasingly large in the thinking of defense planners.
"They did not know that China was building artificial islands," said one industry source who regularly talks to the region's navies. "They did not know that it had built a runway or put in missile launchers. They want to fix this."
China has been building runways and other infrastructure on islands it controls in the South China Sea, where it has a series of overlapping territorial claims with its neighbors.
The rising tensions in the region are fueling demand for advanced radars, sensors and other equipment known in defense jargon as "ISR" - intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
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"People don't trust their neighbors, resource and territory claims require a keen knowledge of what the other guy is going, and military operations other than war demand strong situational awareness," said Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of analysis at Teal Group, a U.S.-based aerospace consultancy.
"And of course, societies, militaries, and non-state armed groups are electronically more noisy than ever, meaning countries need ISR to keep tabs on them."
Manufacturers displaying their wares in Singapore included traditional players such as Airbus and Boeing, alongside newcomers from Indonesia and Japan.
Sweden's Saab unveiled its "Swordfish" maritime patrol and anti-submarine system, which can be based on a Bombardier business jet or a turboprop aircraft, at the show.
Lean defense budgets, however mean that many countries are after a lower-cost option.
Boeing offers a stripped-down version of its P-8 Poseidon - the most advanced marine spy plane on the market - called the Maritime Surveillance Aircraft, which is based on a Bombardier business jet.
PT Dirgantara Indonesia, the country's state-owned aerospace firm, offers a maritime patrol version of the Casa CN235 military aircraft that is produces under license from Airbus.
Several are in service with the Indonesian navy, which is expected to acquire more, and talks have been held with Malaysia and other countries in the region.
The company is working with French firm Thales to provide maritime surveillance and anti-submarine capabilities, but it is open to countries customizing their requirements.
"We are not selling any of the equipment," said Ade Yuyu Wahuna, vice-president of business development and marketing at the company. "We are the integrators and if anyone wants to choose their own kit, we can integrate that onto the aircraft."
(Reporting By Siva Govindasamy; Editing by Alex Richardson)