Here's a peek at China's Drone Program
No, China hasn't used its drones for assassination attempts -- yet, as far as we know -- but it looks like China is headed in that direction.
According to analysts who follow such things, China probably has the world's second-largest fleet of military drones, numbering in the thousands. In fact, China's drone fleet is second only to that of the U.S., which has at least 7,000 drones in military service.
A recent report published by the Department of Defense's Defense Science Board (DSB) noted that "in a worrisome trend, China has ramped up research in recent years faster than any other country."
And the Chinese are doing drones more cheaply than U.S. defense contractors could ever hope. For example, the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, the U.S. military's main hunter-killer drone, costs about $17 million today, and that's a price based on economies gained from late-stage production.
By comparison, China's "Wing Loong" drone -- suspected of being a copy of the Reaper, and it certainly looks like one -- costs the equivalent of about US$1 million.
Now, it's not the airframe or conventional propeller engines that account for the bulk the of Reaper's price tag. Instead, it's the cutting-edge electronics and optics onboard. And while it's unlikely that China's drones are as electronically sophisticated as ours (we can only hope), are they really 17 times less effective?!
As Soviet Marshal Joseph Stalin supposedly once noted, "Quantity has a quality all its own."
Why Does China Want Drones?
The Chinese are certainly keen students of military technology. There are many reasons for this, but one main driver is a collective Chinese recognition of how far the nation fell behind the rest of the world during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. In fact, I recall a senior U.S. military officer relating a story about an official tour of China in the early 1980s. The Chinese still included horse-cavalry units in orders of battle planning. But not anymore.
Today, Chinese leadership is on a crash program to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of military capability. They want the best, and they'll go to any ends to get it and figure out how to make it work.
The move toward drone warfare is part of China's larger strategy to project power over the international waters to its east and south and over its small, weaker neighbors to the north and west. (Of course, one very underpopulated area north of China is Siberia -- part of Russia.)
Consider just one recent Chinese military exploit involving drones. Last month, on Sept. 9, a Chinese drone penetrated Japanese airspace near Okinawa for the first time. Japanese defense forces noted the intrusion and scrambled jets. The Chinese drone was escorted out of the area by Japanese air force F-15s.
Then in response to the Chinese intrusion, in late October, the Japanese prime minister gave the Japanese military permission to engage and destroy future drone incursions. Looking ahead, this kind of cat-and-mouse drone game between Japan and China could be a flashpoint in the ongoing territorial tensions between the two countries.
Of interest as well, in early October of this year, the U.S. and Japan renewed a mutual defense treaty and included new terms involving drones. Specially, the U.S. military will begin flying long-range drones -- like Global Hawk -- over the disputed Senkaku Islands in spring of 2014.
So looking ahead, what would happen if U.S. and Chinese drones met in the skies over the East China Sea?
According to current U.S. doctrine, American drones are not intended (nor designed, truth be told) to enter into contested or hostile air space. In essence, U.S. drones are not meant to fight aircraft to aircraft in any conflict with China or anyone else.
So far, China's drones apparently mimic American designs. Thus, the odds are even. Then again, countries can do things with drones they wouldn't do with manned aircraft. And with technological breakthroughs, advances are occurring with stunning speed. Needless to say, China's acquisition of drones on a massive scale is a major boost to its military and overall governmental capabilities, one to which the rest of the world will have to adapt.