News / Asia

    Analysts: Chinese Drone Technology Advancing Rapidly

    A man works at a booth displaying drones on the eve of the ninth China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, November 12, 2012.
    A man works at a booth displaying drones on the eve of the ninth China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, November 12, 2012.
    Analysts say China is using its rapidly expanding defense budget to make impressive advances in drone technology, prompting some to worry that the United States' global dominance in the market could soon be challenged.

    At a recent biennial airshow in the southern coastal city of Zhuhai, China unveiled a new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Long-time observers of Chinese military capability reported the drones on display were bigger and more sophisticated than in the past.

    Though many of the prototypes and models on display at the Zhuhai air show did not have explicit military purposes, others appeared to be clones of U.S. drones, such as the Predator or Reaper, which have both been used in deadly missions on suspected militants.

    There is no evidence suggesting China plans to use its drones in a similar manner as the United States, and observers say Beijing is still likely far behind Washington in drone technology.

    US Defense Report Calls China's drone advances "alarming"

    But a report published in July by the Defense Science Board, a committee that advises the U.S. Defense Department, suggested that Beijing's ramped up spending and research on drones could threaten U.S. supremacy in the sector.

    The unclassified report called China's recent focus on UAVs "alarming," warning Beijing could "easily match or outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems, rapidly close the technology gaps and become a formidable global competitor in unmanned systems."

    Richard Bitzinger, an ex-CIA analyst and senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says he dismisses parts of that report as being "melodramatic."

    "There's certainly cause for concern and for watchfulness. But how could the Chinese outspend the United States on drones? I just don't see it," he said. "The United States has literally thousands of drones."

    How has China used drones?

    Bitzinger says it is difficult to determine how China, or any other country, uses drones, partly because of their often-times covert nature. He says drone programs with obvious military purposes are often disguised as only having humanitarian roles, such as disaster relief, counter-piracy or crime-fighting.

    "Kind of all these warm fuzzies, these kind of 'mom-and-apple-pie,' benign things that you can say 'That's what we're building the drones for, and oh, by the way, we have a military purpose for them, as well," said Bitzinger. "When I hear all the kind of uplifting and peaceful-sounding kind of things [about drones], I think 'So what. They can be converted in a matter of hours, if not sooner, into an offensive, or at least an explicitly military, capability.'"

    For China, state media said those reportedly peaceful missions include patrolling maritime regions. In September, the Xinhua news agency reported that China's State Oceanic Administration would step up the use of drones to "strengthen marine surveillance" in disputed areas of the South China Sea. A government report earlier this year called for 11 drone bases to be established along China's coastline by 2015.

    But other missions were seemingly more mundane. The state-run Global Times reported in June that Beijing police is using a drone to spot illegal opium poppies in rural areas of the capital. Last year, the paper said the department would also use unmanned aircraft to "monitor traffic accidents, conduct aerial surveillance, or help with rescue operations."

    So far there are no known instances of China carrying out deadly attacks with weaponized UAVs. But Li Yidong, a designer for the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, told the Global Times that one of the UAVs on display at the Zhuhai air show appears to have carried out 20 missions and fired 15 missiles, judging from the number of red stars and missile patterns on the drone.

    At the Zhuhai air show, Huang Wei, the director of a drone program at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation told the Global Times that UAVs were, "as the Americans say," fit for missions that are "dirty, dangerous and dull."

    Possible deadly missions in the future?

    Bitzinger warns that if Beijing did decide to use drones for explicitly offensive missions, such as targeting suspected militants, it would likely draw on the experience of the U.S. military, which has used the highly effective unmanned planes to target militants in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

    "The United States is basically field-testing the whole idea of drone warfare," said Bitzinger. "Armed hunter-killer drones have been going very well for the United States. And people walk away with this as a lesson. One of the lessons is, "Gee, it would sure be nice to have one of those things."

    Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief at Defense News, says there is no evidence to suggest that China desires to carry out deadly drone strikes. But he says that if it did, it would likely point to U.S. drone use as justification.

    "There's certainly an argument to be made that if the U.S. can make the same type of judgment call and justification for hitting militants in Pakistan, what's to stop the Chinese from hitting Tibetan or Uighur rebel groups that are technically within China's own sovereign country?" he asks.

    The danger of Chinese drone exports

    Another area of concern for the United States is that China will increasingly export its relatively inexpensive drone technology to nations around the world. That fear was heightened when the Global Times said in November that "some foreign sales" were reported at the Zhuhai air show.

    Minnick says that Chinese drones, many of which are specifically produced for the export market, are very attractive for nations that cannot afford or are otherwise prevented from purchasing the U.S. alternatives.

    "Our drone exports are very expensive platforms, very sophisticated. The Chinese produce a much cheaper variety that basically does the same job," said Minnick. "The Chinese have got cheap labor, technological know-how, and are looking at an export market that's growing."

    But Bitzinger says price is only one factor that nations consider when purchasing foreign military equipment. He warns Beijing will not likely become the "Wal-Mart" of international drone sales anytime soon.

    "I'm sure they'd like to be, but the question is, do you want to buy Chinese equipment?" asks Bitzinger. "The reliability, the maintenance of these things is still unproven, and there's a lot of political baggage that comes with buying Chinese [products]."

    Bitzinger also says Chinese exports of drones may be limited by international arms sales regulations that govern exports of weapons and "dual-use" goods that have both civilian and military purposes.

    Still, Bitzinger and other analysts warn against being dismissive of Chinese drone capability.

    "I think at this point, they're still very much in that developmental, exploratory phase," he said. "That aside, I don't see them getting out of the business. I think they'll continue to work on it and get better."

    You May Like

    Beijing Warns Critics Over South China Sea Dispute

    Official warns critics that the more they challenge China's position regarding disputed territories in one of world’s busiest waterways, the more it will push back

    Will New Russian Force Be 'Putin’s Personal Army'?

    With broad powers to control riots, suppress dissent, National Guard may be aimed at sending a message to West as much as keeping peace at home

    Move Over Millennials, Here Comes iGeneration

    It’s the first American generation to be born, almost literally, with a smartphone in hand

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: vlhc from: ny
    January 12, 2013 10:49 PM
    One thing is certain, China is in no hurry to shatter the US' illusion their glorified gliders are the forefront of drone technology

    by: India Gang Rape Victim from: India
    December 27, 2012 10:34 PM
    China will develop it's drones and will use it for internal and military purposes and match or compete with USA. No stopping it regardless of various comments and criticisms here as that is the future to come.

    by: VG from: India
    December 20, 2012 11:05 PM
    Chinese are master at copying other nations' military arsenals, especially that of the USA. The world has every reason to believe that Chinese will these drones in Tibet and in areas neighboring India. China does not believe in laws and moral values and has insatiable desire for land and other natural resources. They will do anything to fulfill these wants.

    by: Anonymous
    December 19, 2012 11:28 AM
    A Disaster for the ruthless, plunderer, and mentally ill Chinese communist masters over the technique on how to make the modern weapons. They will use only to invade and encroach other countries' territory. Down with the Chinese.
    In Response

    by: anon from: texas
    December 20, 2012 6:58 AM
    The idea of 2 USA's scares me as well. Not good for humanity.

    by: jimmmy from: kl
    December 19, 2012 11:17 AM
    As usual these so-called US and Western experts will be folishly prooven to be talking nonsence in their guesswork on China. The only things in their minds is US is god and China is evil.
    In Response

    by: Ian from: USA
    December 19, 2012 1:50 PM
    CJ,

    remember the aircraft carrier that China bought from Ukraine under the pretext that it will be used as a floating casino !
    What is it now?
    It is now the "LiaoNing carrier" that will be used soon in the war with the southeast asian countries to rob these countries of their coast lines.
    So there is nothing peaceful about any technologies that China stole from the world.
    The world should not allowed itself to fall asleep & dream with these chinese lullabies
    I blame the whole fiasco back to the originator Henry Kissinger, this pig head thinks he understand asians (or specifically chinese) He is just a self promoter-aggrandizer who made so many mistakes & bad advises that one day will bring disaster to the western world.
    In Response

    by: cj from: US
    December 19, 2012 1:17 PM
    So what then is the true analysis of China jimmy?

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Image Recognition Market Seen Doubling by 2020i
    X
    Ramon Taylor
    May 05, 2016 10:05 PM
    From auto tagging on Facebook to self-driving cars, image recognition technology as it exists today is still in its beginning phases, experts say — and will soon change the way users and corporations interact with the physical world. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
    Video

    Video Image Recognition Market Seen Doubling by 2020

    From auto tagging on Facebook to self-driving cars, image recognition technology as it exists today is still in its beginning phases, experts say — and will soon change the way users and corporations interact with the physical world. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
    Video

    Video Child Labor in Afghanistan Remains a Problem

    With war still raging in Afghanistan, the country also faces the problem of child labor as families put their school-age children to work to help make ends meet. But, thanks to VOA's Afghan Service, two families whose children had been working in a brick-making factory - to earn their livings and pay off family debts - now have a new lease on life. Zabihullah Ghazi reports.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Troops Recount Firefight Which Killed US Navy SEAL

    A U.S. Navy SEAL killed Tuesday, when Islamic State fighters punched through Kurdish lines in northern Iraq, was part of a quick reaction force sent to extract other U.S. troops trapped by the surprise offensive. VOA's Kawa Omar spoke with Kurdish troops in the town of Telskuf -- the scene of what U.S. officials called a "dynamic firefight."
    Video

    Video British Lawmakers Warn EU Exit Talks Could Last A Decade

    Leaving the European Union would mean difficult negotiations that could take years to complete, according to a bipartisan group of British lawmakers. While the group did not recommend a vote either way, the lawmakers noted trade deals between the EU and non-EU states take between four and nine years on average. Henry Ridgwell reports on the mounting debate over whether Britain should stay or exit the EU as the June vote approaches.
    Video

    Video NASA Astronauts Train for Commercial Space Flights

    Since the last Shuttle flight in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russian rockets to launch fresh crews to the International Space Station. But that may change in the next few years. NASA and several private space companies are developing advanced capsules capable of taking humans into low orbit and beyond. As VOA's George Putic reports, astronauts are already training for commercial spacecraft in flight simulators.
    Video

    Video US Worried Political Chaos in Iraq Will Hurt IS Fight

    The White House is expressing concern about rising political chaos in Iraq and the impact it could have on the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. says Iraq needs a stable, central government to help push back the group. But some say Baghdad may not have a unified government any time soon. VOA's White House correspondent Mary Alice Salinas reports.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora