The Chinese Ministry of National Defense’s latest report on the status of its military, released in the middle of last month, made no mention of drones and ministry spokesman Yang Yujun (楊宇軍) made only the barest acknowledgment of their existence in response to a question.
“Drones are a new high-tech form of weaponry employed and used by many militaries around the world,” Yang said. “China’s armed forces are developing weaponry and equipment for the purpose of upholding territorial integrity, national security and world peace. It will pose no threat to any country.”
Drones are already patrolling China’s borders and a navy drone was deployed to the western province of Sichuan to provide aerial surveillance following last month’s deadly earthquake. They may also soon be appearing over China’s maritime claims, including the Japanese-controlled Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea, which China considers its own and are also claimed by Taiwan. That could sharpen tensions in an area where Chinese and Japanese patrol boats already confront each other on a regular basis and Japan frequently scrambles fighters to tail manned Chinese aircraft.
Retired Chinese major general Peng Guoqian (彭國強) told state media in January that drones were already being used to photograph and conduct surveillance over the Diaoyutais which are known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan.
The Pentagon says that Chinese drones could boost the effectiveness of long-range radar in monitoring activity and locating targets in the western Pacific far from the Chinese coast. Their missions could include guiding home an anti-ship ballistic missile known in military circles as a “carrier killer,” the Pentagon said in last year’s report on China’s military.
Reports about the search for notorious river bandit Naw Kham, wanted for the 2011 murders of 13 Chinese sailors, offer some clues about China’s plans for drones.
Liu Yuejin (劉躍進), the head of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s anti-narcotics bureau, was quoted by state media as saying a plan had been floated to target Naw Kham’s fortified camp with a drone loaded with 20kg of TNT. The type of drone was not mentioned. The plan was dropped by higher-ups in favor of taking Naw Kham alive, but the revelation served as a statement of Chinese intentions and capabilities.
China began developing drones in the 1960s and is believed to have used them for reconnaissance during its brief 1979 invasion of Vietnam. The program was aided by the adaptation of foreign civilian or dual-use UAVs for military purposes, then took a leap forward with the purchase of Harpy drones from Israel. Later, US opposition to Israeli upgrades on the Harpys spurred China to build its own version.
China’s gains are aided by the industry’s relatively low costs and short production schedule, and boosted by the assembly of the country’s homebuilt Beidou navigation satellite system and improved high-speed data links. China’s military is expected to field hundreds, if not thousands, of drones, although the overall size of the fleet is difficult to estimate and the US will ultimately have many more.
Chinese UAVs range from simple propeller-driven models to the high-concept, stealthy Dark Sword, featuring a joined wing and tail assembly similar to the US Avenger. More than 90 percent of the Chinese drones now in service are variants on the simpler ASN-209 surveillance drone seen in navy drills and which are now being produced under license by Egypt.