Wing Loong. Xinhua photo

China’s Coming Drone Swarm

Beijing is churning out new flying robots like crazy. But are they any good?

There are only a few countries with the means and will to build swarms of drones. The United States is one of them. Then there’s China. And China’s drone swarms could pose an entirely new kind of danger compared to America’s.

Beijing is building so many Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, so fast — and is hush-hush about so many — that it can be hard to keep track. Many of them resemble copies of U.S. UAVs and prototypes. Many more are simply non-flying models wheeled out at international trade shows and never flown. The risk, according to several analysts, is that Beijing’s drones are taking off so rapidly that they could disrupt the balance of power in Asia, particularly in contested regions where drones can work quietly and collect vast amounts of data.

The ramped-up UAV development could also allow China to easily carry out targeted killings inside and outside its own borders. And with an ever increasing number of deadly drones proliferating, the risk of a conflict — perhaps even an inadvertent conflict — could escalate.

“It is difficult to gauge the precise nature of Chinese drone development because of Beijing’s lack of transparency,” Austin Strange, a researcher at the U.S. Naval Institute and the co-author of a new report in World Affairs about Beijing’s drones (alas, behind a paywall), tells Medium. “However, it is clear that China, like the U.S., has and is developing UAVs for a variety of direct and indirect military uses including [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], targeted payload strikes and electronic warfare.”

The boom in drones shouldn’t signal some kind of arms race between China and other states, Strange says. It’s not surprising China — and other non-Western states like Russia — is boosting drone development. But it could “further alter the security balance in East Asia,” Strange adds.

Beijing also has a lot of reasons why it wants lots of drones. They allow China to extend its reach at sea, such as carrying out surveillance missions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which are claimed by both China and Japan and subject to much dispute. Another reason is domestic surveillance, where China may not be as disinclined to do as U.S. officials are at home.

RQ-170 copies? Photo via David Cenciotti

Clones and drones

In recent days, grainy photographs of a stealthy new drone began circulating on Chinese Internet forums, a popular place for military enthusiasts to trade snapshots of Beijing’s latest military hardware. But this aircraft with its distinctive swept-wing design bears a close resemblance to a secretive U.S. drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, that fell into the hands of the Iranians two years ago and might have been passed along to the Chinese.

Is it a copy? “If the above image is genuine, China has already cloned the stealthy drone the U.S. lost (almost intact) in Iran,” wrote ace aviation journalist David Cenciotti, who spotted the photographs.

More drones have appeared at China’s airfields. Photos published in May depicted another swept-wing drone, believed by observers to be the Lijian, or Sharp Sword, taxiing on a runway. If true, it’d be China’s first jet-powered drone that’s also intended to serve in combat. It appears to be based on the U.S.’s carrier-launched X-47B. The flying wing is designed to reduce infrared emissions, and it appears to have satellite datalinks and two internal bomb bays.

That’s not all. The two most prominent drones in China’s inventory are the CH-4 and Wing Loong, or Pterodactyl. Both closely resemble the U.S.’s MQ-9 Reaper, which serves as the U.S.’s main attack drone and is itself a larger version of the better-known MQ-1 Predator. The Pterodactyl, which is believed to have been tested carrying out ground strikes with anti-tank guided missiles, has a flying time of 20 hours and a range of 4,000 kilometers.

But how capable are these drones? That depends. The Pentagon’s most recent annual report on Beijing’s military expressed alarm that China’s combination of early-warning aircraft, satellites, over-the-horizon radars and drones could be able to “locate targets at great distances from China, thereby supporting long-range precision strikes, including employment of [anti-ship ballistic missiles].”

Where China is behind is in the technical nuts and bolts. Software and control systems are likely not as advanced as comparable U.S. systems, and there is a relative lack of experience among pilots operating drones for extended periods of time.

“The Chinese designs are unlikely to be as advanced as American ones due to the technology gap between the two countries in areas like engine, sensors, flight software, materials and such,” says Feng Cao, a China analyst who writes at the widely-read naval blog Information Dissemination. “Engines are probably China’s biggest Achilles’ heel in the UAV programs. I think China is making good progress in catching up in the other areas. [The] PLA also doesn't have as large of a budget as the U.S. military, so that would also account for less capability.”

Wing Loong ground control station. CCTV screencap

Spy and strike

For now, China uses its drones mostly for maritime surveillance, with deployments along the northeast coast in proximity to disputed islands claimed by China and Japan. Deployments could be planned for bases near the South China Sea, which has another set of disputed territorial claims with Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Domestically, the U.S. and China have the same problem with UAVs: that is, how to manage them in the same airspace shared by commercial planes. That means developing an air traffic regulatory system, whether over Shenzhen or San Antonio, that can prevent collisions between drones and manned planes. Where the U.S. and China differ is how, and how much, the drones will be used over their own territory.

“We won’t see the existential angst in China that we have in the U.S., because privacy expectations and transparency are already different,” says Patrick Lin, a philosophy professor at California Polytechnic State University, who specializes in the ethical use of drones. “Where the U.S might limit use of domestic drones in, say, loitering outside a 12th-story apartment window or hunting down criminal suspects, China might not be as reluctant, though I’d still expect some opposition from its citizens, for whatever that’s worth.”

One solution could be through establishing some international guidelines for how drones should be used. But there’s no telling if China will follow them if these norms are established by the U.S., or whether any nation would follow them when using drones at home.

“This is different than, say, environmental policy that could affect the quality of life and resources of other nations,” Lin says. “Domestic drone use don’t seem to have those effects outside the country.” But many observers are still interested in human-rights violations internal to other nations, in both the U.S. and China, so it’s not a reason never to establish any norms, Lin adds.

But what about using lethal drones to target suspected terrorists or criminals? There’s no question China could. This is no longer a “technological hurdle” but a political one, according to Strange at the U.S. Naval Institute. “Drone usage for domestic security objectives, particularly in border regions, seems plausible though Beijing would need to first calculate the political costs of these operations,” he says.

There are signs Chinese officials have considered it. In March, Beijing reportedly considered — but did not ultimately pursue — using a UAV to kill a Myanmar drug lord alleged to be behind the murders of 13 Chinese sailors in 2011. There’s also the question whether China would use weaponized drones to target Uyghur militants in the country’s western region.

But look at it another way: political costs have not stopped the United States from using drones to target suspected terrorists, simply because it’s easier — in an expensive counter-insurgency conflict — to “kill terrorists from above than try to root them out,” Strange and his colleague, U.S. Naval Institute professor Andrew Erickson, wrote in World Affairs. “Some similar challenges loom on China’s horizon. Within China, Beijing often considers protests and violence in the restive border regions, such as Xinjiang and Tibet, to constitute terrorism. It would presumably consider ordering precision strikes to suppress any future violence there.”

CH-4 drone model. People’s Liberation Army photo

Exporting another war?

Here’s another rub. As drones are used to wage conflict, they also risk sparking it, according to Lin. The reason is because as the political and financial costs of remote warfare decrease, those in charge of waging it are more likely to pull the trigger.

“That’s virtually guaranteed. There’s no reason to think that waging war is an exception,” Lin says. “With drones, hopefully any increase in aggression will be limited to low-intensity conflicts, but that’s nonetheless a use of force that we’d probably not see if we didn't have drones.”

For instance, it may be so commonplace for states to use drones to target their enemies that it becomes a customary international practice, like espionage. Since there’s no loss of human life — to the drone operator — but only damage to property, even if military owned, the international opinion could plausibly be that drone attacks by themselves no longer become a sufficient case for war. That’s still drone war, but normalized as the ordinary business of state.

The risks increase further the more drones spread outside major powers. “China already offers a wide variety of drones, many of which are available for purchase on international markets,” Strange says. “Non-Western states whom the U.S. and its allies might not be willing to arm with drones could potentially look to China to fill their import needs, perhaps at lower costs.”

Many states may also not be willing to pay the price for drones from the U.S. and Israel — another leading drone-maker. China’s drones are reportedly cheaper, according to Chinese media reports, with the Wing Loong priced at around $1 million compared to $10 million for a Reaper. But then, you also might get a much less capable drone when buying from Beijing. And the exports will take time.

“Our company has set up a pretty aggressive sales target for UAVs, but the global market competition is quite fierce,” Guo Qian, a director at state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation told GlobalPost at the Zhuhai Air Show in 2012. “There are many similar products in the global market and they are quite mature, so we haven’t had a big impact in the market. It will take some time for our products to be known and accepted.”

That air show featured delegates from “many countries, especially from Africa and Asia,” Guo said. As well as military officials from Myanmar and Kenya. China has successfully sold some of its CH-4 drones to Pakistan, reportedly exported the Wing Loong to the United Arab Emirates.

“As for export, this is one area it has been doing well,” Feng says. But one caveat is that drones are part of a much broader Chinese military modernization program that also includes a giant new transport plane, stealth fighter prototypes and designs for a new stealth bomber. Feng cautions that taken in context, the drones themselves are not unique.

“As for whether or not China’s work on drones should be cause for alarm, that really depends on what constitutes alarm,” says Feng. “If America is concerned that China is catching up militarily and developing more capabilities that it could use to dominate the region, then it should be.”