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Are China’s New Drones Cause For Concern?

November 22, 2010

China, working to catch up with the United States and Israel, is ramping up production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are being hailed as the future of military aviation, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

Western defense officials were surprised to see some 25 different models of unmanned Chinese aircraft on display at last week’s Zhuhai air show in China. It was a record number of UAVs for a country that unveiled its first concept UAVs only four years earlier at the same air show.

The US and Israel are currently the world leaders in developing pilotless drones, which have played a major role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Analysts say UAVs could one day replace the fighter jet altogether.

This year’s models at the Zhuhai air show included several designed to fire missiles, and one powered by a jet engine, meaning it could possibly fly faster than the propeller-powered Predator and Reaper drones that are used by the US.

No exact details were given of which Chinese drones were fully functional, although one exhibitor confirmed that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had deployed at least two propeller-powered UAVs, which were featured in the last year’s 60th National Day parade.

The large number of UAVs on display clearly illustrates China’s intentions in investing considerable time and money to develop drone technology, and is actively promoting its products on the international market, which has implications for China’s external and domestic security, as well as for other countries that have sought in vain to acquire drones for military purposes or for police surveillance and antiterrorist operations.

China’s progress in drone technology is likely to spur others, especially India and Japan, to accelerate their own UAV development or acquisition projects.

U.S. anxiety about China’s UAVs were highlighted in a report released Wednesday by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which was formed by Congress in 2000 to assess the national security implications of trade and economic relations with China.

“The PLA Air Force has deployed several types of unmanned aerial vehicles for both reconnaissance and combat purposes,” said the report. “In addition, China is developing a variety of medium- and high-altitude long-endurance unmanned vehicles, which when deployed, will expand the PLA Air Force’s ‘options for long-range reconnaissance and strike,’” it said, citing an earlier Pentagon report.

Experts believe that China’s drone technology is still several years behind US and Israeli models, noting that many countries have tried to develop their own UAVs but have failed. The experts also said that China is catching up fairly quickly in other areas of civil and military aviation technology, thanks mostly to technology transferred by foreign aerospace companies working with the Chinese.

They also suggested that China had been helped by Israel, which sold China antiradar drones in the 1990s, infuriating the Pentagon, which has since blocked the Israelis from providing further upgrades.

The one drone that concerns the US the most is the one with several missiles and a jet engine — called WJ600 — which was displayed by China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp (CASIC), one of China’s top weapons makers.

Officials from CASIC showed off a video and a 2D display featuring Chinese forces using the drone to help attack what appeared to be a US aircraft carrier steaming toward an island off China’s coast.

Another company, ASN Technology Group, which claims to control 90 percent of China’s domestic market, showed off 10 UAVs at the air show. ASN officials said two of those are already being used by the PLA but neither was designed to carry weapons.

However, their display also included a model of the largest UAV at the show, the ASN-229A Reconnaissance and Precise Attack UAV, which is designed to carry air-to-ground missiles, and to use a satellite link to locate and attack targets over a radius of 1,200 miles.

Image Caption: General Atomics MQ-1A Predator. Source: USAF Museum

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