- China is making sophisticated and inexpensive drones that could dominate the global market.
- Though the US still has the upper edge when it comes to drone technology, China is not far behind and is actively working to catch up.
- China has already sold drones to a number of countries, some of which are US partners that tried to buy American drones.
China showed off some of its latest drone models and projects at this year’s Dubai Airshow and it looks like many spectators were interested.
China has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of drones it has sold to foreign countries in recent years, and that could be a troubling development for the United States.
The global military drone market has been dominated by the US. American-made models like the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper, and the RQ-4 Global Hawk have been deployed around the world in a number of countries.
In large part, China poses a threat to America’s dominance in the drone industry for its ability to make more products that are, at the very least, just as good if not better than the competition, but at a lower price.
China is building impressive and inexpensive drones
The most well-known and used Chinese drones are the CH-3, CH-4, CH-5, and the Wing Loong.
The CH-3 and CH-4 propeller-driven drones are essentially Chinese versions of the Predator and Reaper, respectively, and have similar capabilities. The CH-5 has a current range of 4400 miles over 60 hours, and a planned upgrade that will bring it up to 12,000 miles over 120 hours.
The CH-5 also has a 2,000 pound payload, and the capability to house electronic warfare systems inside it.
The CH-3 and CH-4 have price tags around $4 million, whereas the Predator and Reaper can cost $4 million and $20 million respectively. The Wing Loong, another Chinese counterpart to the Predator, is priced even lower, at just $1 million. Even the CH-5, which is currently China’s deadliest drone in service, costs “less than half the price” of a Predator.
The prices are so low in part because the Chinese drones are not as sophisticated as their American counterparts. The Chinese drones are not satellite-linked, for example, meaning they cannot conduct operations across the globe the way Predators and Reapers can.
The Chinese drones are still very capable – all are sold with the ability to carry large amounts of ordinance, and many nations have decided to turn to them in order to fill in the gap left by the US.
The US has restrictive regulations and policies
Lower prices, however, may not the only reason behind China’s increased drone sales.
A large part of China’s increased market share looks is linked to regulations and policies that have been in place in the Unites States for years.
In 1987, the US signed the Missile Technology Control Regime, a voluntary pact of 35 nations aimed at preventing the mass proliferation of missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles by requiring them to have heavy regulations and tight export controls.
Currently, under the agreement, drones that can fly over 185 miles and carry a payload above 1,100 pounds are defined as cruise missiles. The Predator and the Reaper, both of which can carry payloads of 3,000 pounds or more, are thus subject to these regulations and controls.
The US has been hesitant to sell drones with lethal capabilities to other countries – especially in the Middle East, because of a fear that they could potentially end up in the wrong hands, and challenge Israel’s dominance in the region.
In fact, the only nation apart from the US that uses armed American-made drones is the United Kingdom.
China, on the other hand, is not constrained by the Missile Technology Control Regime because it never signed it. This means that its products are not under the intense regulation and controls that American drones are.
Additionally, China has traditionally not been as cautious as the the US about selling weaponry and equipment to countries known for human rights violations or in volatile regions and has sold drones to many nations.
In Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have purchased a number of Wing Loongs, and Turkmenistan operates the CH-3. In Africa, Nigeria has used CH-3 drones against Boko Haram. Pakistan and Myanmar both operate CH-3’s as well.
By far though, the biggest market is the Middle East.
In 2015, desperate in its fight to counter ISIS gains, Iraq bought a number of CH-4s. After giving up on buying drones from the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE turned to China and are using CH-4s and Wing Loongs in their campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Jordan and Egypt have purchased Chinese drones as well.
China is even willing to set up factories overseas, which could bypass export restrictions entirely.
China’s future drone projects are even more impressive
Last year, at the Zhuhai 2016 Airshow, the public was able to get a glance at some of the newest drones China plans to build and export. Among those was the Cloud Shadow, a semi-stealth drone with six hardpoints capable of carrying up to 800 pounds of ordinance.
There was also the CH-805, and concept CK-20 stealth target drones, which are designed to help train pilots and test air defenses.
Finally, there was the SW-6, a small “marsupial” drone with folding wings capable of being dropped from larger aircraft. Its intended mission is to conduct reconnaissance, but it is considered a prime candidate for China’s drone “swarm” project; dozens, potentially hundreds of small drones linked together in a hive mind and capable of swarming and overwhelming targets.
China has also just successfully shattered the record for the highest flying drone. Previously held by the US RQ-4 Global Hawk, the bat-sized drone was able to fly at a staggering 82,000 feet- 22,000 feet higher than the Global Hawk.
Though the drone did not have a camera or any weapons, it did carry a terrain mapping device and a detector that would allow it to locate and mark ground troops, and was virtually undetectable.
In addition to all this, China is also looking to increase its satellite capabilities, something that could make China’s drones just as advanced as their US counterparts.
In an attempt to combat the loss in sales, the Trump administration, which has not been subtle in its hopes to get foreign countries to buy more American-made defense products, is trying to ease restrictions on the sale of American-made drones.
This includes things like renegotiating the Missile Technology Control Regime, and allowing a number of countries that are not deemed risky to be able to get fast tracked orders.
Though probably interpreted as a way to help the defense industry make more profits, there is actually some logic behind the push. The more China sells drones to countries that are US partners, the more they will become reliant and closer on China.
“It damages the US relationship with a close partner,” Paul Scharre, a Senior Fellow and Director at the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security told the Wall Street Journal. “It increases that partner’s relationship with a competitor nation, China. It hurts US companies trying to compete.”
For now, Israel dominates the military drone market, with 60% of international drone transfers in the past three decades coming from the small nation.
However, China sellls far more armed drones, and is gaining momentum on overall drone sales as well. If current trends continue, China could profit immensely in a market that could be worth $22 billion by 2022.