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China On Fast Track To Match U.S. Drone Capabilities

At the most recent Zhuhai air show, the premier event for
China’s aviation industry, crowds swarmed around a model of an armed,
jet-propelled drone and marveled at the accompanying display of its
purported martial prowess.

In a video and map,
the thin, sleek drone locates what appears to be a U.S. aircraft
carrier group near an island with a striking resemblance to Taiwan and
sends targeting information back to shore, triggering a devastating
barrage of cruise missiles toward the formation of ships.
Little is known about the actual abilities of the WJ-600 drone or the
more than two dozen other Chinese models that were on display at Zhuhai
in November. But the speed at which they have been developed highlights
how U.S. military successes with drones have changed strategic thinking worldwide and spurred a global rush for unmanned aircraft.

More than 50 countries have purchased surveillance drones, and
many have started in-country development programs for armed versions
because no nation is exporting weaponized drones beyond a handful of
sales between the United States and its closest allies.

 “This is
the direction all aviation is going,” said Kenneth Anderson, a professor
of law at American University who studies the legal questions
surrounding the use of drones in warfare. “Everybody will wind up using
this technology because it’s going to become the standard for many, many
applications of what are now manned aircraft.”

 Military planners
worldwide see drones as relatively cheap weapons and highly effective
reconnaissance tools. Hand-launched ones used by ground troops can cost
in the tens of thousands of dollars. Near the top of the line, the Predator B,
or MQ9-Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems,
costs about $10.5 million. By comparison, a single F-22 fighter jet
costs about $150 million.
 Defense spending on drones has become
the most dynamic sector of the world’s aerospace industry, according to a
report by the Teal Group in Fairfax. The group’s 2011 market study
estimated that in the coming decade global spending on drones will
double, reaching $94 billion.

But the world’s expanding drone fleets — and the push to weaponize
them — have alarmed some academics and peace activists, who argue that
robotic warfare raises profound questions about the rules of engagement
and the protection of civilians, and could encourage conflicts.

could reduce the threshold for going to war,” said Noel Sharkey, a
professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of
Sheffield in England. “One of the great inhibitors of war is the body
bag count, but that is undermined by the idea of riskless war.” 

China On Fast Track


No country has ramped up its research in recent years faster than
China. It displayed a drone model for the first time at the Zhuhai air
show five years ago, but now every major manufacturer for the Chinese
military has a research center devoted to drones, according to Chinese

Much of this work remains secret, but the large number
of drones at recent exhibitions underlines not only China’s
determination to catch up in that sector — by building equivalents to
the leading U.S. combat and surveillance models, the Predator and the
Global Hawk — but also its desire to sell this technology abroad.

The United States doesn’t export many attack drones, so we’re taking
advantage of that hole in the market,” said Zhang Qiaoliang, a
representative of the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute,
which manufactures many of the most advanced military aircraft for the
People’s Liberation Army. “The main reason is the amazing demand in the
market for drones after 9/11.”
Although surveillance drones have become widely used around the world, armed drones are more difficult to acquire.

Israel, the second-largest drone manufacturer after the United
States, has flown armed models, but few details are available. India
announced this year that it is developing ones that will fire missiles
and fly at 30,000 feet. Russia has shown models of drones with weapons,
but there is little evidence that they are operational.

Pakistan has said it plans to obtain armed drones from China, which has already sold the nation ones for surveillance.
And Iran last summer unveiled a drone that Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad called the “ambassador of death” but whose effectiveness is
still unproven, according to military analysts. 

The United States is not yet threatened by any of these
developments. No other country can match its array of aircraft with
advanced weapons and sensors, coupled with the necessary satellite and
telecommunications systems to deploy drones successfully across the

“We are well ahead in having established systems actively
in use,” said retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, the former deputy chief
of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at the Air
Force. “But the capability of other countries will do nothing but grow.”

Raising alarm


In recent conflicts, the United States has primarily used land-based drones,
but it is developing an aircraft carrier-based version to deploy in the
Pacific. Defense analysts say the new drone is partly intended to
counter the long-range “carrier killer” missile that China is

With the ascendance of China’s military, American
allies in the Pacific increasingly see the United States as the main
bulwark against rising Chinese power. And China has increasingly framed
its military developments in response to U.S. capabilities.

A sea-based drone would give the United States the ability to fly
three times the distance of a normal Navy fighter jet, potentially
keeping a carrier group farther from China’s coast.

This possible
use of U.S. drones in the Pacific has been noted with alarm in news
reports in China as well as in North Korea’s state-run media.

are similar anxieties in the United States over China’s accelerating
drone industry. A report last November by the U.S.-China Economic and
Security Review Commission noted that the Chinese military “has deployed
several types of unmanned aerial vehicles for both reconnaissance and

In the pipeline, the report said, China has several
medium- and high-altitude long-endurance drones, which could expand
China’s options for long-range surveillance and attacks.

China’s rapid development has pushed its neighbors into action.
After a diplomatic clash with China last fall over disputed territories
in the South China Sea, Japan announced that it planned to send military
officials to the United States to study how it operates and maintains
its Global Hawk high-altitude surveillance drones. In South Korea,
lawmakers this year accused China of hacking into military computers to
learn about the country’s plans to acquire Global Hawk, which could peer
into not only North Korea but also parts of China and other neighboring

On top of the increasing anxieties of individual countries,
there also are international concerns that some governments might not be
able to protect these new weapons from hackers and terrorists. Sharkey,
the University of Sheffield professor who also co-founded the
International Committee for Robot Arms Control, noted that Iraqi
insurgents, using a $30 piece of software, intercepted live feeds from
U.S. drones; the video was later found on the laptop of a captured

Relaxing U.S. export controls

But with China and other countries beginning to market their
drones, the United States is looking to boost its sales by exploring
ways to relax American export controls. 

Vice Adm. William E.
Landay III, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency
overseeing foreign military sales, said at a Pentagon briefing recently
that his agency is working on preapproved lists of countries that would
qualify to purchase drones with certain capabilities. “If industry
understands where they might have an opportunity to sell, and where they
won’t, that’s useful for them,” Landay said.

General Atomics, the
San Diego-based manufacturer of the U.S. Predator drones, has received
approval to export to the Middle East and Latin America an unarmed,
early-generation Predator, according to company spokeswoman Kimberly
Kasitz. The company is now in talks with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab
Emirates and Egypt, among others, she said.
At the same time, U.S.
officials have sought to limit where others sell their drones. After
Israel sold an anti-radar attack drone to China, the Pentagon
temporarily shut Israel out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program to
register its disapproval.

In 2009, the United States also objected
to an Israeli sale of sophisticated drones to Russia, according to
diplomatic cables released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. A
smaller co-production deal was later brokered with the Russians, who
bristled when Georgia deployed Israeli surveillance drones against its
forces during the 2008 war between the two countries.

But for
China, there are few constraints on selling. It has begun to show its
combat drone prototypes at international air shows, including last month
in Paris, where a Chinese manufacturer displayed a craft, called the
Wing-Loong, that looked like a Predator knockoff. Because of how tightly
China controls its military technology, it is unclear how far along the
Wing-Loong or any of its armed drones are from actual production and
operation, defense analysts say.
According to the Aviation
Industry Corp. of China, it has begun offering international customers a
combat and surveillance drone comparable to the Predator called the
Yilong, or “pterodactyl” in English. Zhang, of the Chengdu Aircraft
Design and Research Institute, said the company anticipates sales in
Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa.
However, he and others
displaying drones at a recent Beijing anti-terrorism convention played
down the threat of increasing Chinese drone technology. 

“I don’t
think China’s drone technology has reached the world’s first-class
level,” said Wu Zilei, from the China Shipbuilding Industry Corp.,
echoing an almost constant refrain. “The reconnaissance drones are okay,
but the attack drones are still years behind the United States.”
Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the Washington-based International
Assessment and Strategy Center, said such statements are routine and
intended to deflect concern about the nation’s expanding military