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."

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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?

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