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

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

China to Open Stock Markets to Pension Funds

In unprecedented move, government to soon allow local pension funds to invest up to $94 billion in domestic shares More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

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.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs