“Unmanned aerial vehicles [UAV] and helicopters will play a bigger role in anti-terrorism missions in the future, both at home and abroad,” Ma Tenglong (馬騰龍), a marketing manager at the Aviation Industry Corp of China (AVIC), China’s largest aircraft manufacturer, said at the 4th China (Beijing) International Exhibition and Symposium on Police Equipment and Anti Terrorism Technology and Equipment (CIPATE) earlier this month.
Although Beijing’s interest in UAVs has been known for years, it wasn’t until the 8th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition (Airshow China) in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, in November last year that the scope of Chinese capabilities in that department was fully unveiled. In all, more than 25 models of UAVs were showcased and a good number of them had dual-use capabilities, meaning that they had both civilian and military applications.
While the development and deployment of unmanned vehicles by the Chinese military and security apparatus adds to an already complex situation in Asia, it is a perfectly natural consequence of China’s rise and Beijing is only following the example set by other modern militaries the world over.
However, what is more worrying, experts say, is that Chinese officials appear to have been impressed by, and to have learned lessons from, precedents set by the US.
“The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] has probably been the keenest watcher of the use of the latest technology by US forces,” Steve Tsang (曾銳生), director of the China Policy Institute in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, told the Taipei Times. “The PLA tries to learn as much as it can from the application of new technology in the ‘battlefield’ and picks up some of the language used, too.”
Coverage on May 20 by the state-owned China Daily of the CIPATE show underscores that interest.
“In anti-terrorism operations outside China — including the recent killing of Osama bin Laden by the United States — unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters have played an important role in reconnaissance and also carry out air-to-ground attack missions,” it said.
One of the drones on display at the CIPATE, held on May 19 through May 21, was AVIC’s “Pterodactyl,” which can be used for surveillance and reconnaissance as well as air-to-ground attack missions. Its mission time extends to 20 consecutive hours and it can operate at an altitude of 5,000m.
Also on display was a variety of domestically produced weapons systems for UAVs, reports said.
However, as Roger Cliff, an expert on the Chinese military at the Project 2049 Institute, told the Taipei Times, we should approach comments like those made by Ma with skepticism.
“AVIC [though state-owned] is not part of the Chinese military, so anything said by AVIC employees should not be construed to represent the view of China’s military or civilian security apparatus,” he said. “Ma is a marketing manager and his statements were made at an international exhibition of police and counterterrorist equipment. He is trying to promote the sales of UAVs abroad, not making an authoritative statement about how UAVs will be used in China.”
In addition, many of the systems displayed at these exhibitions are developed for export only and are never procured by China’s domestic security forces, Cliff said.