Armed drones: China’s next big arms export?

Richard A. Bitzinger November 11, 2016 12:21 PM (UTC+8)
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China recently concluded its biannual air show and defense exhibition in Zhuhai, located just across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong. The Zhuhai Air Show affords China a chance to show off its latest and greatest aerospace weaponry, including fighter jets, missiles, transport planes, and space launch vehicles. It is a prime window on China’s aircraft and aerospace industry.

There were several surprises at this year’s air show. China’s new J-20 fifth-generation fighter made its public debut, making a quick pass over the spectators during the opening ceremonies (before it was hidden away again). The air show also displayed the new AG-600 seaplane, which could be useful in resupplying the artificial islands that China recently constructed in the South China Sea. Other new products include attack helicopters, upgraded versions of the J-10 fighter and the H-6 bomber, the Y-20 strategic transport plane (similar to the US C-17), and several types of anti-ship and air-to-ground missiles.

Send in the Drones

But perhaps the real break-out star of the Zhuhai Air Show was China’s growing military drone industry. China has quite recently become one of the world’s largest manufacturers of all kinds of unmanned aerial systems (UASs), ranging from the very small, hand-held types, all the way up to very large high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) drones. These also included several unmanned rotorcraft UASs, and at least one seaborne surface vessel.

UASs have several roles and missions. Initially drones were utilized mainly for surveillance and reconnaissance. Increasingly, however, they have been expanding their missions to include laser-targeting, electronic warfare (jamming), and airborne early warning. But what has really caught the imagination of the world’s militaries has been the rise of the armed drone, also known as the unmanned combat aerial vehicle, or UCAV.

This is noteworthy for several reasons. In the first place, armed drones are quickly becoming a critical piece of equipment in many countries’ military toolboxes; UCAVs are proliferating because they are seen as a very useful (and safe, at least for their operators) weapon for precision air-to-ground attack, especially over hostile territory.

Secondly, as a result, drones are becoming a potentially lucrative segment of the global arms business, and one that is likely to grow significantly over the coming decades. Making and exporting UCAVs will be an increasingly attractive business sector, which will also them an object of growing concern when it comes to their proliferation.

China as a Drone Exporter

In this regard, China is a critical country to watch, as it has, rather recently, become a significant producer of armed drones. More importantly, it has become a major player in the global sale and transfer of these UCAVs.

China has so far exported at least two types of armed drones, the Caihong and the Wing Loong (also called the Pterodactyl). Both bear a striking resemblance to two existing US UCAVs, the MQ-1B Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. The Predator was originally a surveillance drone, later modified to carry Hellfire laser-guided missiles. The Reaper is a dedicated “hunter-killer” drone.

The Wing Loong I, designed and built by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG), is roughly the same size as the Predator, about 29 feet long, and with a wingspan of 45 feet. It carries a much smaller payload, however, about 220 pounds, compared to the Predator’s 1100 pounds. At the same time, the Pterodactyl costs about a million dollars per unit, or only one-fourth that of a Predator drone. It has been sold to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.

At the Zhuhai Air Show, the Wing Loong was exhibited with several types of air-to-ground missiles and precision-guided bombs. Moreover, a larger version, the Wing Loong II, was also displayed.

The Caihong (Rainbow) drone is perhaps more disconcerting as a weapons platform than the Wing Loong. The original CH-3 version, which had been sold to Nigeria, appears to be relatively ineffective as a UCAV; at least one crashed in Nigeria, ostensibly during operations against the Boko Haram militants. The CH-4 version, however, is more or less a clone of the MQ-9 Reaper, and much more capable. So far, the CH-4 has been sold to Egypt and Iraq.

More important, there is a new, larger version of the Caihong drone, the CH-5, being readied for market. The CH-5 has a wingspan of 20 meters (66 feet) and a takeoff weight of about 3 tons. It can carry a maximum payload of around 900 kilograms – about two and a half time more than previous UCAVs in the CASC Rainbow series. Moreover, it has an endurance of 60 hours, giving it a 6,500-kilometer range.

According to Western reports, the CH-5 version is also equipped with a datalink that permits it to link up with other drones in order to carrying out joint, swarm-like missions.

Bloodied in Battle = Marketability

Moreover, China is one of the few countries, other than the United States and Israel, perhaps, whose UCAVs have actually been bloodied in combat. In particular, the Iraqi military recently used a Chinese-built CH-4B Caihong drone to attack an ISIS target, in this case, with a laser-guided missile. It was, in fact, Iraq’s first-ever drone strike.

China will only grow as a maker and supplier of all types of drones, including UCAVs. In addition to AVIC, China’s traditional drone manufacturer, many other players are jumping into this business. The Caihong, for example, was developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which mostly produces guided missiles and space launch vehicles. The China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), which mainly deals in defense electronics, has formed a partnership with Tsinghua University to develop a swarming drone. Several small start-up companies China have also developed UASs, ostensibly for the global market.

In sum, armed drones are here to stay. More nations are acquiring them, and more are building them. This, in turn, could mean major revenues for China’s drone business. As argued elsewhere, few of Chinese weapons are all that competitive on the global arms market (see my previous article, “Why hardly anyone wants to buy Chinese weapons,” Asia Times, September 17, 2016). Armed drones, however, could be the exception, and China can offer – or soon will offer – many types of UCAVs that could be quite effective – and relatively cheap.

In addition, China has relatively few scruples when it comes to what and to whom it sells its military wares. All in all, armed drones are one segment of the global arms market where China could carve out quite a lucrative niche for itself.

Richard A. Bitzinger
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
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