Did China's Military Drone Technology Espionage Pay Off in the End?


China’s industrial espionage appears to have paid off in the drone market.

As reported by Bill Gertz in late December, the CH-4 armed UAV strongly resembles the MQ-9 Reaper produced by General Atomics, and operated by the United States Air Force. According to Gertz, working from a video of the CH-4 posted online, “Both aircraft are about the same size and wing-span and both sport identical V-tails, landing gear, imaging pods and propeller-driven rear engines.”

U.S. defense officials have long suggested that China has illegally appropriated U.S. military technology through a variety of means, but mainly through cyber-intrusion. These intrusions have attacked the Pentagon, as well as defense companies, and even law firms.

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To be sure, Gertz makes clear that no one can prove, as of yet, that China acquired information about U.S. drones through illicit means. And even if China did acquire data from General Atomics, the Department of the Defense, or the myriad of contractors, subcontractors, and law firms associated with the development and sale of U.S. weapons, it is by no means clear that China’s defense industry could absorb this data in ways consequential to the construction of its own drones.

Moreover, the basic components of the Reaper drone are not particularly sophisticated. The Reaper is a relatively simple airframe, dependent for its success on a set of technological advances in computing and communications that China already has access to through the civilian market. Much of what looked like industrial espionage during the Cold War actually involved parallel development, sometimes supported by legitimate, open-source acquisition of technological innovation. Put differently, even without secret data about the Reaper and other U.S. drones, China could likely construct an aircraft of similar capabilities.

Finally, it’s worth noting that China has acquired more than a little U.S. military technology through more traditional means of industrial espionage. China has repeatedly purchased U.S. missile and aerospace technology from Israel, obviating the necessity to hack into U.S. systems and steal intellectual property. Any accounting of China’s propensity to steal technology needs to reckon with the multiple avenues through which the PLA can get what it wants.

The really interesting developments will come when the Chinese begin to export drones based on what the United States believes to be proprietary American technology. If the U.S. Department of Justice could ever conclusively demonstrate that Chinese hackers stole U.S. technology, the firms that produce the drones could conceivably come under sanctions, especially if they operate in countries friendly to U.S. legal intervention. And that could make buyers uncomfortable enough to hesitate before pulling the trigger on a big arms deal.

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