South China Sea threat: US deploys deadly hunter drones as Beijing intensifies war drills

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Pentagon officials said hunter-killer MQ-9 Reapers, which have so far been used to battle insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa, are now being reprogrammed for maritime operations in southeast Asia. Beijing said it had lodged “stern representations” with the US.

An MQ-9 Reaper was used earlier this year in the killing of top Iranian commander Major General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last January.

Analysts said the deadly drone had a 40-hour endurance with a maximum altitude of 40,000 feet.

Its payload capacity, including air to surface missile and laser-guided bombs, is up to 2.5 tonnes.

But security experts in Beijing have dismissed the US move, telling the state-owned newspaper the Global Times stated the MQ-9 is not a serious challenge for China.

Chinese military aviation expert Fu Qianshao said the drone does not possess stealth capabilities and flies at a low speed and low ceiling, which makes it an easy target for ground-to-air missiles.

He claimed armed spyplanes such as the MQ-9 can only be deployed when against smaller nations with less developed armed forces that do not have adequate air defence capabilities and said many US drones had been shot down in similar missions.

The MQ-9 reaper deployments comes as China has carried out five separate military exercises simultaneously along different parts of its coast, marking the second time in two months it will have concurrent drills against the backdrop of soaring tensions in the region.

The country’s Maritime Safety Administration said two of the exercises were being held near the Paracel Islands in the disputed South China Sea, one in the East China Sea, and one further north in the Bohai Sea.

Drills including live-fire exercises in the southern part of the Yellow Sea were scheduled to conclude today.

All ships are prohibited from entering the area during the exercises.

China holds military drills periodically to train and maintain a combat-ready military force but rarely do multiple exercises happen at the same time.

Last month, China announced four separate exercises, from the Bohai Sea to the East and Yellow Seas and down to the disputed South China Sea, in what Chinese military experts said was a rare arrangement of drills.

Relations between China and the US have gone from bad to worse in recent months on a wide variety of issues including the treatment of Taiwan, the coronavirus pandemic, trade deals and alleged human rights abuses.

Donald Trump repeated his claim that China was to blame for COVID-19 during last night’s presidential debate with Democratic rival Joe Biden.

China has been holding frequent military activities near Chinese-claimed Taiwan and has taken the unusual step of declaring that such drills are directed at Taiwan.

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The South China Sea is one of the busiest waterways in the world, with trillions of dollars’ worth of trade passing through it each year.

Some analysts estimate China lays claim to as much as 90 percent of the South China Sea, including a number of islands and reefs.

Washington has warned China’s militarisation of the area threatens trade.

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