How China became the world’s leading exporter of combat drones | Weapons News

From Saudi Arabia to Myanmar and Iraq to Ethiopia, militaries around the world are stockpiling Chinese combat drones and deploying them on the battlefield.

In Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition has deployed Chinese aircraft, also known as drones, as part of a devastating air campaign that has killed more than 8,000 Yemeni civilians over the past eight years. In Iraq, officials say they have used Chinese drones to carry out more than 260 airstrikes against Islamic State (ISIS) targets as of mid-2018, with a success rate of nearly 100 percent.

In Myanmar, the military – armed with Chinese drones – has carried out hundreds of airstrikes against civilians and ethnic armed groups opposed to the country’s takeover two years ago, while in Ethiopia, fleets of Chinese, Iranian and Turkish drones have targeted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. It was very vital. in helping his forces thwart a 2021 rebel march that threatened to topple his government.

Other buyers of China’s combat drones — planes that can fire air-to-ground missiles in addition to gathering intelligence — include Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Pakistan and Serbia.

Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks global arms transfers, shows that China has delivered some 282 combat drones to 17 countries over the past decade, making it the world’s largest exporter of weaponized aircraft. By comparison, the United States — which has the most advanced drones in the world — delivered only 12 combat drones in the same period, according to SIPRI data, all of which were delivered to France and Britain.

However, the United States continues to lead in the export of unarmed surveillance drones.

China’s dominance of the global combat drone market over the past decade is due in part to a massive government-funded effort to upgrade its armed forces to “world-class standards.” Chinese President Xi Jinping has described drones as capable of “profoundly changing war scenarios” and pledged at last year’s Communist Party Congress to “accelerate the development of unmanned and intelligent warfare capabilities.”

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“Drones are an important part of China’s information warfare concept,” said John Schaus, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “Advanced capabilities like this allow China to conduct missions far from its borders with far less infrastructure or political risk than if its military personnel were physically present,” he said.

While it is not clear whether China carried out a drone strike, it deployed the warplane in exercises around Taiwan in September after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the self-ruled island.

China considers Taiwan part of its territory and has not ruled out using force to control the island.

Analysts say drones will play an important role in any conflict over Taiwan. Chinese military aviation expert Fu Qianshao told the Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper in September that since the drones are unmanned, they would be among the first weapons deployed in the Taiwan Strait in the event of a conflict. . Western military analysts also say China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is likely to use large numbers of drones at the start of any conflict in an attempt to overwhelm the territory’s air defenses.

‘good enough’

So far, the main focus of China’s drone program has been to replicate the capabilities of other countries, said Akhil Kedal, an aviation reporter at Janes, a defense media outlet and open-source defense intelligence agency.

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He noted that China’s best-selling drone, the Caihong 4, is almost identical to the US-made MQ-9 Reaper, while the popular Wing Loong 2 is similar to the US-made MQ-1 Predator.

China’s many drone programs reflect Beijing’s interest in building a better platform than its Western counterparts. Wing Lung 2 and 3 are examples of this. According to China, both drones are not only faster than their American counterparts, but are said to be able to carry more weapons payloads.

While similar in design and capability to US-made drones, Chinese drones are also much cheaper, making them more attractive to global buyers. For example, according to CSIS, a US-based think tank, the CH-4 and Wing Loong 2 are estimated to cost between $1 million and $2 million, while the Reaper costs $16 million and the Predator $4 million.

The cheaper price tag means that interested governments can also buy the drones in larger quantities.

In terms of performance and cost, on a like-for-like basis, Chinese systems are likely to be cheaper, and in some areas less capable, but the latter may not be a concern for many buyer countries where this capability is offered. “Good enough,” said Douglas Barry, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

China also offers flexible payment terms to interested buyers.

“Chinese companies realized that those countries in North Africa were not rich and allowed them to pay not in cash but in installments, sometimes even with drones, for local natural resources such as materials,” said Zhu Chenming, an analyst based in Beijing. exchange minerals South China Morning Post last year.

More than any other factor, however, analysts say countries have turned to China because of export controls imposed by the United States.

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Washington restricts the sale of its combat drones, citing the Missile Technology Control Regime established in 1987 to limit the proliferation of platforms capable of carrying chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. According to reports, it has rejected requests from Jordan, Iraq, the UAE and Saudi Arabia for weaponized aircraft, forcing these countries to buy drones from China.

“China imposes less restrictions on end-user use,” said IISS Senior Researcher Franz Stephan Gaddy.

“This means that countries that buy drones can deploy them however they see fit, even if it violates international law and human rights,” he said.

Meanwhile, for China, the use of its drones by other countries on the battlefields provides valuable feedback for fine-tuning the capabilities of this equipment.

And while the U.S. still maintains the technological edge in drones, some analysts say China could quickly fall behind.

“Many of China’s drone programs are essentially technology demonstrations aimed at fostering domestic ingenuity. “Local industries are working on these projects to increase their refining, development and production capacities.” However, once the concept is operationalized, China has been shown to quickly lay the groundwork for the induction of armed forces.

Kodal mentioned the unveiling of the Wing Loong 10 UAV at the recent air show in Zhuhai, China. He said that the Air Force of the Liberation Army unveiled the drone with its special colors, which shows that this drone, which is said to be capable of electronic warfare operations, has entered service.

He said: “The development of this UAV has reached from the conceptual stage to a potential induction in only six years.

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