The Sep 2019 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s crude oil hub at the Abqaiq and Khurais production facilities reveal how drone warfare has progressed in terms of choosing of targets, precision attack, employment tactics that even a nation with a sophisticated military and a massive defense budget is still vulnerable to drone strikes. China is quickly preparing for the disruptive revolution in the use and employment of robotic and autonomous systems on the future battlefields and is continuing to develop new drones which are stealthy, faster, high altitude, long endurance and highly autonomous.
PLA has incorporated large number of a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into its force structure, while also starting to experiment with and, to a limited extent field, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). The PLA’s sophisticated unmanned weapons systems will increase its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, while its progress in artificial intelligence would enhance their autonomy and could enable a disruptive operational advantage. In the immediate future, the probable missions for the PLA’s unmanned weapons systems will include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); integrated reconnaissance and strike; information operations, especially electronic warfare; data relay, including communications relay and guidance for missiles engaged in over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting; and military operations other than war, such as counterterrorism and border defense.
China’s military drone programme is now ramping up and moving to the next level. New developments include fleets of UAVs that can be launched from aircraft carriers, bolstering the Chinese naval capabilities and swarm-intelligence systems that synchronize operations between drones and other military aircraft. China’s supersonic spy drone was unveiled for the first time during a weekend rehearsal for the National Day military parade on October 2019 , according to photographs circulating on social media.
The global production and sale of military drones is expected to rapidly increase over the next decade, with China anticipated to lead the market in 2025. China is already world’s largest producer of UAVs and is working on taking on a greater share in the military drone segment of the global market, competing against traditional leaders like the US and Israel.
China is becoming leading Exporter of Armed Drones, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) which track global arms flow, China exported 163 large, weapons-capable UAVs to 13 countries from 2008 to 2018. The export of medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAVs is signalling that China is finally joining the ranks of leading defence exporters US and israel.
In addition, China has enjoyed large success in selling CASC’s Cai Hong ( rainbow) series of UAVs which include Cai Hong 3 (CH-3) and larger CH-4. since 2014, China has sold more than 30 CH-4’s to countries including Saudi Arabia and Iraq in deals worth over $700 million, according to CASC. Ten countries are currently in negotiations to purchase the CH-4, according to the firm. Chinese drones such as the CH-3 and CH-4 have been employed by Chinese air force as well been proliferated to a wide range of Militaries from Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt to Pakistan, Nigeria, and Iraq. Serbia has plans to acquire UAVs from China, including two Wing Loong II MALE UCAVs. According to reports , the UAVs will be assembled locally in Serbia using chinese supplied technology.
Jordan bought the drone in 2015 but displayed it publicly for the first time at the Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference, known as SOFEX in 2018, a biennial event where companies market their latest wares. They have even recently used in battlefields that range from Nigeria to Iraq. China is also believed to have provided technological assistance for Pakistan’s armed drone programme.
By comparision, SIPRI data suggests that the USA manufacturer General atomics delivered just 15 MQ-9 Reaper systems to international customers in the past 10 years, with outstanding international orders of 28 additional examples. UAV giant Israel has exported around 167 MALE UAVs of the hermes and Heron series during the same period , with these assets serving in the intelligence , surveillance and reconnaisance (ISR) missions-not attack roles.
The export of armed drones by United States has so far been restricted only the United Kingdom and Italy, due to controls to keep the technology out of the wrong hands. After some U.S. lawmakers urged President Donald Trump to loosen controls and let General Atomics sell its armed Reapers to Jordan and the UAE, the administration on April 2017 permitted U.S. manufacturers to directly market and sell drones, including armed versions. More countries, such as Russia, Turkey and South Korea, are likely close behind.
China will sell 48 high-end armed drones to its “all-weather ally” Pakistan in what a military observer said will be the largest deal of its kind. Wing Loong II is a high-end reconnaissance, strike and multi-role endurance unmanned aerial system, capable of being fitted with air-to-surface weapons. It is roughly equivalent to the American MQ-9 Reaper drone. The drones will also be jointly manufactured by China and Pakistan, state-run Global Times reported. Last year, China reportedly sold to countries like the UAE and Egypt the Wing Loong II at an estimated USD 1 million per unit, reports said.
China’s drones have also caused political incidents after unmanned aircraft sold by Shenzhen-based SZ DJI Technology Co. were flown onto the roof of the office of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the grounds of the White House in Washington.
Drones employed extensively in China for Civilian and Military Use
Drones are widely employed in China, As the end of 2013, there are over fifteen thousand UAVs operating in China in the civilian sector alone. Within China, civilian drones are being put to a wide range of uses, including videography during marriages, courier delivery and security surveillance in major industrial projects. They were also used in search and rescue during earthquakes and other disaster management tasks.
Chinese air force is reportedly deployed its latest spy drone to peer down at foreign ships, presumably including American vessels. The newly obtained satellite images from ImageSat International (ISI) show a Chinese Harbin BZK-005 long range reconnaissance drone on Woody Island in the South China Sea. The drone can remain airborne for up to 40 hours.
In addition, recent breakthroughs in swarm intelligence could enable “swarm warfare” for asymmetric assaults against major U.S. weapons platforms, such as aircraft carriers. The PLA has also intensified its efforts to capitalize upon the military applications of artificial intelligence. Looking forward, PLA strategists, recognize and intend to capitalize upon a trend towards “unmanned, intangible, silent warfare” that is increasingly “intelligencized writes Elsa B. Kania Analyst, The Long Term Strategy Group.
China to lead drone market by 2025
China’s drone market is likely to grow annually by 40 percent to have an output value of 60 billion yuan ($9.13 billion) by 2020, the industry ministry said in Dec 2017, in a statement, in which it pledged support for the sector’s development.
China is now leading drone manufacturer, as of 2015, there were roughly 400 UAV developers / manufacturers in China manufacturing UAVs ranging from the smallest micro air vehicle (MAV)s to the largest UAVs. About two third of them are private enterprises (PE), and the remaining are government owned enterprises (GOE). “Some estimates indicate China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land- and sea-based unmanned systems, worth about $10.5 billion, between 2014 and 2023,” according to the report— Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015.
China leading Exporter
In 2017, China sold to the UAE the Wing Loong II, an armed unmanned aerial vehicle roughly equivalent to the American MQ-9 Reaper. Chinese armed drones have been operating at Jordan’s Zarqa Airport, at an air base in Pakistan and from bases in Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula and near its border with Libya, according to satellite photos analyzed by the Center for the Study of the Drone.
China recently claimed that the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation is ready to start mass producing the Cai Hong 5 (CH-5), the country’s most advanced publicly acknowledged drone. First tested in 2015, the craft has a 69-foot (21-meter) wingspan, is able to fly at 30,000 ft and carry as many as 24 missiles at a time. It can fly for up to 60 hours and has a 4,000-mile range (6437 km) and capable of launching air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided bombs. Future upgrades to this UAV are expected to extend the range to 6,000 miles (9656 km). It is said to be able to operate for 60 hours and and China is now seeking an export licence for its new CH-5 combat and reconnaissance drone.
Chinese drones “have bigger payloads, which means they can carry more weapons” than their competitors, said Shi Wen, chief drone designer at the academy. Stating that China has exported military drones to more than 10 countries in deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Shi said that the country now plans to sell unmanned craft capable of launching laser-guided bomb.
While Chinese drones are less capable than US drones in terms of performance and reliability, many of them have crashed in Nigeria and Algeria. However, they are cheaper reportedly sold for one quarter of US built counterparts, sold without any export restrictions like U.S. They also being employed against counterterrorism operations where high performances are not required. These factors have made Chinese drones especially useful for many militaries around the world.
Ehang Incorporated, Chinese drone maker, has developed what is regarded as the world’s first passenger drone. The company described its product, Ehang 184, as “a manned drone capable of automatically carrying a passenger through the air, simply by entering a destination into its accompanying smartphone app.”
Chinese drones being used in campaign against Boko Haram Militants
Earlier this year Nigeria received a number of armed Caihong-3 drones from Beijing, which it appears to have been using in its campaign against Boko Haram militants. CH-3 is boomerang-shaped, roughly 25 feet from wingtip to wingtip and powered by a rear-mounted “pusher” propeller. It is capable of flying an estimated 12 hours at a time at a cruising speed of around 150 miles per hour, and equipped with camera.
CH-3 is smaller tactical drone with ability to loiter in the air for just around six hours. It can reportedly carry at least 130 pounds of sensors or weapons, including at least one AR-1 laser-guided missile — the rough Chinese equivalent of the AGM-114 Hell Fire missile carried by U.S. drones.
Pakistan employs indigenous combat drone against terrorists, reportedly developed with Chinese help
Pakistan’s military says it has deployed a locally-made drone for the first time, killing three militants near the Afghan border. In a statement, the army said missiles fired by the drone had hit a compound in the North Waziristan Shawal valley.
Neil Gibson, weapons analyst with IHS Jane’s, said that despite the claims of Pakistani manufacture, “close analysis of imagery released by Pakistan suggests at least a heavy debt to Chinese systems”. The Burraq, he added, “strongly resembles” China’s CH-3 UAV.
Iraq shows off airstrike by new Chinese-made combat drone
The Iraqi military has released a video displaying the combat deployment of a CH-4B drone which the country recently bought from China. Baghdad has been diversifying its arms supply to decrease its reliance on American producers.
The Caihong (Rainbow) 4B drone flew from the al-Kut Air Base southeast of Baghdad and shot an AR-1 laser-guided anti-tank missile at an Islamic State target, according to the Iraqi Defense Ministry. The first-ever Iraqi combat drone mission was supervised by Defense Minister Khaled-al-Obeidi.
Iraq purchased a number of Chinese combat drones in early 2015, with photos of the robotic aircraft already in Iraq surfacing since at least March. CH-4 is larger than CH-3 carrying a much larger payload (345Kg) and 35-hour flight endurance at 4,000m altitude, comparable to the US MQ-9 Reaper. The CH-4B is a dual reconnaissance/combat UAV with a range of 5,000 km, according to producer, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).
The drone is similar to the US-made MQ-9 Reaper can carry a payload of up to 350kg carried on six pads. Its designated weapons include Lan Jian 7 (Blue Arrow 7) laser-guided air-to-surface missiles, TG100 bombs and the AR-1 missiles, the latter being an equivalent of American-made Hellfire missiles.
Drone Innovation Center at Shanghai
China’s first drone compound that allows for a variety of drone testing with loosened regulations officially opened in Jinshan, Shanghai. The innovation centre will provide participants with 36 square miles of airspace, and is intended to boost research, development and testing for industrial drone applications. The three main elements being prioritized at Shanghai’s new drone center are flight testing, demonstrating the intended drone applications, and refining their abilities for eventual industrial implementation. It will also further research for law enforcement , firefighting applications and serve as a manufacturing and assembly facility .
China to become largest manufacturer, consumer and exporter of drones
In 2014, Forecast International, a private market researcher, published a forecast of the global UAV market over the next decade. The report predicts that the global drone market will more than double in the next ten years, rising from $942 million in 2014 to an annual $2.3 billion in 2023.
The report forecasted that the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a state-owned Chinese defense company, will lead the world in UAV production. According to Forecast International, AVIC will produce about $5.76 billion worth of UAVs through 2023. This is more than half of the UAVs by value that will be produced during this time period. Nearly all these will be sold to Chinese consumers.
China may envision exports of unmanned systems as a profitable way of improving its position in the global arms market and a means of strengthening its diplomatic and security ties with recipient countries.