The defense priority for Southeast Asian countries is monitoring and protecting their territories in the South China Sea in response to China's increased assertiveness and claims to this region.

Chinese submarines, ships and aircraft patrol the area now, and many Southeast Asian nations fear China will build military installations on the islands, atolls and reefs, paving the way for it to exploit the oil and gas reserves under the seabed. China already has a permanent fort on Mischief Reef in the South China Sea.

The fact that China has such a large military has led all the coastal Southeast Asian nations—with the exception of Singapore—to conclude that they are inadequately equipped to protect their interests in the South China Sea. Each is now racing to invest in new fighters that will remain their mainstays beyond 2020. The importance of airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft and networked fighters has also caught on.

Singapore, which has the largest defense budget of any Southeast Asian nation, has Gulfstream G550s equipped with ELTA Systems' AEW mission suite. Its fighters include Lockheed Martin F-16s and Boeing F-15s. It is planning to modernize the F-16s and is expected to choose the “V” upgrade Lockheed Martin unveiled at the Singapore Airshow last month. This includes active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar as well as data links allowing the F-16V to communicate with Lockheed Martin F-35s and F-22s. Singapore became a security cooperation participant on the F-35 program in 2003 and is expected to order the aircraft eventually.

No other Southeast Asian nation can afford all the equipment Singapore has, but some are seeking to develop similar capabilities. Thailand operates one Saab Erieye AEW aircraft and has one more on order. It has also received six Saab Gripen JAS 39C/Ds and ordered six more; first deliveries of the second tranche will start early next year. Equipment on its Gripens include Ericsson/GEC-Marconi PS-05/A pulse-doppler radar, RBS15 anti-ship missiles and the EWS 39 electronic warfare suite, the same suite used by the Swedish air force.

Thailand is widely expected to order another six Gripen fighters, bringing its fleet of the aircraft to 18. The country purchased Gripens to replace its Northrop F-5s based at Surat Thani air base because it is convinced of the merits of networked fighters. The Swedes argue that having better intelligence on your enemy's whereabouts—through the use of Saab AEW—allows you to place fighters more effectively, creating an opportunity to defeat a larger enemy.

The networked solution is also being taken to the next level. Saab owns 40% of Thai company Avia Satcom, which has been tasked with developing a national tactical data link that will cover the AEW aircraft, Gripens and F-16s as well as the navy's aircraft and ships. The Saab Erieye also works with Link 16, so it can feed data to U.S. platforms such as F-16s, but the advantage for Thailand in having a national data link is its control over the encryption.

Thailand is also undertaking a midlife upgrade of 18 F-16A/Bs. This involves installing: a more advanced mechanically scanned radar (Northrop Grumman APG-68V9), new friend-or-foe detection system (BAE Systems APX-113), electronic warfare management system (Terma ALQ-213), and system for protecting against enemy missiles (BAE ALE-47). Thai F-16s and Gripens are equipped with Raytheon's AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missile and AIM-120 Amraam and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

Malaysia is planning to add AEW aircraft networked to fighters, too. It has been considering the Northrop Grumman E-2D as well as the Erieye radar mounted on Embraer EMB-145s.

The new fighters Malaysia plans to order will replace RSK MiG-29s based at Kuantan air base overlooking the South China Sea. Contending to meet the requirement are Saab's Gripen JAS 39C/D and Gripen NG, Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Eurofighter's Typhoon and Dassault's Rafale.

Malaysia already has eight older-variant Hornets so, in theory at least, it does not have to order many Super Hornets to form a squadron, as upgraded Hornets could work alongside the Super Hornets. The Boeing aircraft use many of the same weapons, too. At the Malaysia LIMA Airshow last December, Boeing announced a contract to upgrade the air force's eight Hornets with improved GPS and “identification friend or foe interrogation” capabilities as well as a joint helmet-mounted cueing system (JHCS). The JHCS is needed because Malaysia is purchasing AIM-9X-2 Sidewinder missiles. The JHCS allows pilots to point an AIM-9X missile seeker and lock onto the target simply by looking at it.

The Rafale, like the Super Hornet, has been in active duty as a naval fighter. The maritime aspect is important, because the fighters at Kuantan air base are used to protect Malaysia's South China Sea interests.

Indonesia also wants to protect its South China Sea territory. It is receiving 24 Lockheed Martin F-16C/Ds from the U.S. for free but will spend $750 million to upgrade these to the Block 52 standard, says the U.S. Defense Department. The modernization includes: friend-or-foe radar warning receivers (Raytheon ALR-69), modular mission computers, an electronic warfare management system (Terma ALQ-213), missile protection system (BAE ALE-47 countermeasures dispenser system), situational awareness data link and targeting pods.

In addition, the head of the Indonesian air force, Air Chief Marshal Imam Sufaat, told Aviation Week in February that the country wants to buy AEW aircraft that can be networked to the F-16s. It now has three Boeing 737-2X9 Surveillers equipped with side-looking airborne modular multimission radar.