Chinese drones are taking flight in skies beyond China’s borders in greater numbers, filling a massive void in a multibillion-dollar industry left by the U.S.
While the U.S. is recognized as a leader in the development and deployment of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), it keeps its drone technology close and its armed drones even closer, creating new opportunities for China, which is eager to play a role in the global arms trade.
The U.S. only exports armed drones to a few select allies, such as the U.K., as part of a Department of State decision made early last year. Jordan, for example, requested permission to purchase U.S. drones in 2014 but was rejected.
The U.S. limits its unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) exports, especially its armed drones, for two main reasons.
One, the U.S. is a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a multilateral partnership that prohibits the export of missile and UAV technology capable of delivering a 1,100 lb payload to targets at ranges greater than 185 miles. Two, some U.S. officials are concerned that regular U.S. drone exports would lead to an increase in drone warfare abroad, creating a less secure international environment.
Unhindered by international agreements and export restrictions, China is moving into the drone export business, creating cheap, yet effective alternatives for countries interested in purchasing UAVs.
China has been actively developing its drone technology, making great strides in recent years.
Early last month, China showed off its CH-5 Rainbow drone, which it claims can rival America’s MQ-9 Reaper, at an air show in Zhuhai.
The CH-5 “can perform whatever operations the MQ-9 Reaper can and is even better than the US vehicle when it comes to flight duration and operational efficiency,” Shi Wen, a chief designer of the CH series drones at the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics, explained to the China Daily a little over a month ago.
“Several foreign nations have expressed intentions to purchase the CH-5, and we are in talks with them,” he added, signaling China’s interest in exporting the new CH-5 abroad.
The CH-4, referred to as the “AK-47 of drones,” preceded the CH-5.
China’s Wing Loong, which is produced by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, is a smaller drone similar to the American Predator series drones. The Wing Loong, also known as the Chengdu Pterodactyl I, is used by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
China’s drone development programs have benefited from domestic investments. Some observers suspect that espionage and theft may have also contributed to Chinese advancements.
The American cybersecurity firm FireEye revealed in 2013 that Shanghai-based hackers had breached multiple U.S. defense contractors over a two-year period.
“I believe this is the largest campaign we’ve seen that has been focused on drone technology,” Darien Kindlund, manager of Fireeye’s Threat Intelligence division, told New York Times reporters. “It seems to align pretty well with the focus of the Chinese government to build up their own drone technology capabilities.” It is unclear how much China benefited from this campaign.
Through various means, China has successfully produced several combat-capable drones.
“It’s not technological parity; rather, it’s technological similarity,” Daniel Katz, director for defense analysis and data at Aviation Week, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“China is developing drones to do the jobs of American drones, but for a much lower cost,” Katz explained. “Chinese capabilities do not appear to match American capabilities, but they can get the job done.”
Chinese UAVs are cheaper and come without usage restrictions, such as humanitarian and human rights considerations, but the quality is lower.
For instance, the CH-5, which resembles the MQ-9, appears to have a lower maximum takeoff weight, a lower payload capacity, and a lower service ceiling. The sensors and communications equipment are also likely inferior to those of the MQ-9.
The CH-5’s strong points are its range and endurance, and China is continuing to make improvements.
“The technology gap is closing,” Dan Gettinger, co-director for the Center of the Study of the Drone at Bard College, explained to TheDCNF, “It’s only a matter of time.”
Gettinger noted that while countries are not yet purchasing Chinese drones in large batches, Chinese drone proliferation, especially in the Middle East, is quite extensive.
Exporting drones allows China to see their weapons systems in action and how they perform in combat, Gettinger remarked.
Iraq has released footage of Chinese CH-4 drones eliminating ISIS fighters, and the Wing Loong has reportedly been used on missions in Libya, Yemen, and several other locations.
“China is also trying to move up the value chain on its arms exports,” Katz told TheDCNF. China currently exports cheap systems, small arms, and some armored vehicles, but it wants to eventually sell more advanced combat products like its J-31 stealth fighter.
Drone sales may lead to greater arms sales, especially considering that weapons work best in packages.
Through drone proliferation, China could potentially break into other sections of the global arms trade, which could evolve into new defense deals and greater global influence.
China’s exports have encouraged some American observers to argue that the U.S. should either be exporting its own drone technology or pushing China to be more discriminate in sales.
The U.S. is pursuing neither option, which some say is costing the U.S. both money and influence.
The U.S. signed a joint declaration with more than 40 other countries in October to further curb drone exports, though China — along with a number of other arms exporters — did not sign the agreement.
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