Foreign Policy Blogs

Drones on the Cocos Islands: A Cat Amongst the Pigeons

According to a report by the Washington Post just over 2 weeks ago, US officials have engaged Australia in informal discussions over a proposed US drone base in the Cocos Islands 2,000 kilometers north-west of Perth.

Allegedly, the proposed base would house a fleet of Global Hawk drones. At a unit cost of $218 million per aircraft, these unmanned aerial vehicles can reportedly reach a top speed of up to roughly 500 mph (805 kmph) and have a range of 15,000 miles – more than double the distance between New York and Beijing. Global hawks differ significantly from the more infamous Reaper drones commonly used to combat insurgents in that they are solely used for surveillance and do not possess any actual strike capacity.

Drones on the Cocos Islands: A Cat Amongst the Pigeons

A Global Hawk in action. Source:

The Cocos islands lie 800 miles south west of Indonesia, meaning they are within comfortable flight distance of the South China Sea – a veritable hotbed for regional confrontation over conflicting territorial claims. Since a number of these conflicts involve China, Beijing has naturally expressed concern. The increasing role played by the US as an extra-regional balancer to states threatened by China’s growing military presence constitutes a fundamental restriction upon Chinese freedom of action. Thus, the move to step up operations in China’s own backyard may evoke admonition from an increasingly encircled Beijing.

Drones on the Cocos Islands: A Cat Amongst the Pigeons


The fact that drone-warfare has fast become the cornerstone of contemporary US military strategy is indeed cause for concern for the PRC. With its drone fleet’s total annual flight hours skyrocketing from just 12,500 in 2001 to a staggering 644,000 in 2011, the Pentagon’s firm commitment to drone surveillance will undoubtedly consolidate America’s surveillance and intelligence advantage over their Chinese counterparts.

A drone outpost in the region will also have the added benefit of a providing a way to keep tabs on the emerging regional threat emanating from the Korean peninsula. Indeed, there are fears that North Korea’s recent space missile test may well herald a new wave of recalcitrance from Pyongyang, especially since the woeful failure of the launch may pressure King-Jong to consolidate his leadership through assertive foreign policy. Whilst much is unsure about the dynamics of the regime’s internal structure, concerns over its unpredictability are likely to remain an integral feature of Washington’s regional strategy for the foreseeable future.

The Obama administration’s ambitions of ushering through a new ‘Pacific Century‘ could, at worst, be viewed as a declaration of imperial intent – particularly when viewed alongside Washington’s  multiple military alliances with various regional players. Whilst there is no imminent threat of confrontation in the region, the South China Sea remains a veritable tinderbox for conflict. Perhaps the drones may even be able to spot the spectre of all-engulfing regional crisis as it begins to loom into view.



Alex Ward

Alex Ward is an aspiring journalist, currently studying for a Masters in International Relations from Durham University, UK. Specializing particularly in issues of US primacy in contemporary geopolitics, Alex has worked with The Times of London and is set to intern at The Independent, a leading British newspaper, later this year.

Areas of Focus: Global Political Economy, the East Asian Strategic Order, South American multilateralism, Iran's Nuclear Programme, Brazil's domestic sphere and US hegemony