Will Beijing Deploy 42,000 Drones to Secure the South China Sea?
Image Credit: Flickr/Times Asi

Will Beijing Deploy 42,000 Drones to Secure the South China Sea?


According to the recently released annual U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress on China’s military and security developments (see: “What the Pentagon Thinks of China’s Military”), Beijing is heavily investing into the development of longer-range UAVs.

“China is advancing its development and employment of UAVs. 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,” the Pentagon notes. The report continues:

In 2013, China unveiled details of four UAVs under development — the Xianglong, Yilong, Sky Saber, and Lijian — the last three of which are designed to carry precision-strike capable weapons. The Lijian, which first flew on November 21, 2013, is China’s first stealthy flying wing UAV.

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Over at Breaking Defense, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. interviewed Paul Scharre, an expert on emerging weapon technologies, and Kelley Sayler, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) to shed some more light on the Pentagon’s assessment of China’s burgeoning fleet of UAVs.

In her interview with Freedberg, Sayler emphasizes that not all drones are made equal and that one has to distinguish between small and less expensive reconnaissance drones versus larger armed UAVs when discussing China’s capabilities in this field:

Are we talking about 42,000 commercial off-the-shelf surveillance drones or 42,000 high-end or stealth combat drones?  That clearly makes a difference in the threat assessment. Judging by the projected budget — a rather modest $10.5 billion over 10 years — it would seem that the bulk of Chinese UAV investments will be in lower- to mid-end systems.

Paul Scharre also cautioned not to ring the alarm bells over China’s growing drone fleet just yet. “It’s not like the sky is falling, but it would suggest a future where China will have better situational awareness over its surrounding regions,” he explains. Scharre also points out that unlike U.S. drones, Chinese UAVs will primarily be deployed locally, requiring less sophisticated technology as well as less resources to operate them:

If they’re using drones for surveillance…. that doesn’t mean they need 90 analysts behind every drone orbit. China doesn’t have to project power around the globe like we do in places like Afghanistan, they’re looking to project power locally, so they may be able to do with line-of-sight [radio] networks and relay networks using other drones.

Furthermore, he states that China’s drone program appears to be largely founded upon reverse engineering of foreign technologies, and that China may be taking advantage of existing R&D efforts in the United States:

I wouldn’t look to China to be developing the most cutting-edge technology [themselves], but they may well capitalize on things that we fail to do: really cutting-edge things that are developed in U.S. labs or other countries that we don’t move forward with.

Aviation Industry Corp of China (Avic), the largest Chinese drone manufacturer, is predicted to become the world’s largest maker of military drones by 2023, Reuters reports. While Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law reiterated Scharre’s assessment above he also emphasized Beijing desire to catch up with the West : “Admittedly our technology is not first-rate compared with developed countries, but we don’t want to be left behind.”

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