China Drones Prompt Fears of a Drone Race With the US


During China’s twice-a-year show, visitors got to see an impressive and, to some, alarming fleet of drones developed by Chinese companies, including many models resembling U.S. drones with their body shape, flight specs, and their missile and surveillance capabilities.

It’s evident that China intends to take full advantage of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to achieve its national interests – including their territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands and South China Sea. The U.S. and the World should, therefore, be concerned with this development given that this may lead to a drone race between the top two producers of drones – the U.S. and China.

In a world whose militaries and governments are buzzing about the potential of the drones, it is no surprise that China is working to bring their drone program up to speed to compete with America just as President Obama is executing his "Asia Pivot" through strengthening U.S. military, political and economic presence in Asia. 

China is rising – as evident in its growing economic and military power – but the U.S. should not treat the Chinese drone program as a cause for panic. If the U.S. works towards countermeasures against drones from rival states – like China – the risk posed by the development of competing drone programs can be minimized allowing the U.S. to implement its "Asia Pivot" with one less impediment.

The Rise of the Drones

Drones are the strategic tools of the future, especially when it comes to the political contests between the major players in global affairs. The Department of Defense’s Defense Science Board (DSB) released a report on the future of drones as a potent tool of great powers like the U.S. and China.

The report notes that drones are fast becoming a “tipping point” in global affairs because:

“Armed forces in the United States and around the world have actively embraced unmanned systems. The advantages of these systems in terms of persistence, endurance and generally lower costs and deployment footprint have been highlighted in recent conflicts ... Unmanned systems have become an established part of military operations and will play an increasing role in the modern military machine.”

The value of the drone lies in its capacity to radically expand a military’s ability to gather intelligence and expand its ability to project its power beyond limits faced by frontline personnel. It can also carry out the unpleasant business of neutralizing enemies, including Anwar al-Awlaki and Abu Yahya al-Libi, Al Qaeda’s last number two leaders, with some civilian casualties.

However, the drone is not as precise or accurate as described by the defense industry – as shown by a joint study published by Stanford Law School and NYU School of Law, which detailed the considerable toll taken on civilians in Pakistan – and causes unintended consequences in its search and kill operations in multiple areas of U.S. intelligence operations.

The U.S. remains the leading market for drones, but other powers like China, Russia, Europe and the Middle East are also working to develop their own drone capabilities.

Unlike the other powers, China is the most prolific developer of a rival drone program to America's program. The DSB report said “[i]n a worrisome trend, China has ramped up research in recent years faster than any other country.”

China’s New “Dragons” in the Sky

Like the U.S., China has given its new fleet of UAVs unique code names – which often include the character for “dragon” or "long" – and designed them with comparable capabilities as their U.S. counterparts. Many of its newer models – including the CH-4, the Wing Loong and Xianglong – appears to be copies of the U.S. Reaper, Predator and Global Hawk designs.

The drone program has had a profound effect on China’s defense industry. The DSB report notes that “[China] displayed its first unmanned system model at the Zhuhai air show five years ago, and now every major manufacturer for the Chinese military has a research center devoted to unmanned systems.”

One unique aspect of the Chinese drone program is that the cost of the drones are significantly cheaper than those made by the U.S. and Israel. For example, according to Wired, "[t]he Wing Loong [the Chinese equivalent of the U.S. Reaper] reportedly comes at a rather incredible bargain price of $1 million (£625,000), compared to the Reaper's varying price tags in the $30 million (£18.7 million) range."

For China, their nascent drone program provides a valuable tool for projecting its power in Asia, especially in a time when it’s engaged in territorial disputes with its neighbors. More importantly, China feels a need to meet the threat in perceives in President Obama’s so-called “Asia Pivot.” The drones could act as the ideal surveillance tool in tracking U.S. and its Asian allies' military movements in the event of a crisis or international spat and act as a proxy weapon to deter assertive behavior over the South China Sea and Senkaku Islands.

At the same time, the cheaper Chinese drones are a hot export product line for the Chinese defense industry. Many African and Asian states have placed orders for the economic Chinese drones. "We've been contacting many countries, especially from Africa and Asia," Guo Qian, a director at a division of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

The geostrategic impact of the advent of these new "dragons" is to stoke fears of a drone race between the U.S. and China, which have already manifested at the Pentagon.

Worried About the Dragons’ Reach

The U.S. is deeply concerned with the speed of the Chinese drone program and the growing resources being devoted to the program. The main concern, according to the DSB report, is as follows:

“The military significance of China’s move into unmanned systems is alarming. [China] has a great deal of technology, seemingly unlimited resources and clearly is leveraging all available information on Western unmanned systems development. China might easily match or outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems, rapidly close the technology gaps and become a formidable global competitor in unmanned systems.”

Basically, the U.S. is afraid that it won't be able to keep up with a China that has invested itself in a intensive government-sponsored effort to compete with the U.S. drone program in terms of technical quality, quantity, and as a export product to clients in the developing world. On a strategic level, the Chinese drones could be the "tipping point" for giving the Chinese the edge  in possible future disputes in Asia with the U.S. as it attempts to create regional security as part of its "Asia Pivot."

There are several facts that provide some solace to the U.S. as China's drones are far from being a real challenge to the American drone program.

First, the Chinese drones are nowhere as sophisticated as U.S. drones in their range and proper hardware for optic systems and motors to power the "dragons." The DSB report notes that the U.S. technical systems are almost unrivaled at present.

Second, China lacks the manpower to properly support their new fleet of drones. Whereas the U.S. has been training and honing a large force of UAV pilots, technicians and operation managers for 15 years.

Finally, the U.S. drone program is about 20 years ahead of the Chinese program. The current models on show are considered to be prototypes and not finished products. The Chinese also have not had a chance to gain real experience with their drones during real operation.

The U.S. shouldn't be alarmed given these facts. Nor should it be overly critical of the Chinese drone program. Scott Shane of The New York Times observes that the U.S. has set the "international norms" for using drones:

"If China, for instance, sends killer drones into Kazakhstan to hunt minority Uighur Muslims it accuses of plotting terrorism, what will the United States say? What if India uses remotely controlled craft to hit terrorism suspects in Kashmir, or Russia sends drones after militants in the Caucasus? American officials who protest will likely find their own example thrown back at them."

The U.S. needs to take countermeasures against future risks from Chinese drones, but it needs not be overly alarmed or antsy. Clearly, President Obama and the U.S. has a need to work hard to keep the U.S. ahead of the competition from the "dragons" in order to implement the "Asia Pivot" and pursue U.S. interest in a balance of power in the region.