Tue, May 31, 2011 - Page 3 News List

ANALYSIS: China eyes ‘extraterritoriality’ through use of UAVs

MULTIPURPOSE:Though UAVs were promoted at a recent exhibition as a tool against terrorism, China could use them in future operations against ‘separatist’ entities

By J. Michael Cole  /  Staff Reporter

Still, it would not be surprising if Chinese military and nonmilitary forces eventually began using UAVs outside China’s territory, he said.

The Chinese, like others, appear to have embraced the notion of “extraterritoriality” in UAV use and this stems principally from the fact that their use is seen as more permissible and less controversial when they are caught or shot down over foreign territory.

“Getting caught with a UAV over another country’s territory doesn’t seem to be as provocative as sending manned spy aircraft,” Cliff said. “An Iranian UAV was shot down over Iraq a year or so ago and it was treated as a minor incident, like discovering that a foreign diplomat had been engaged in espionage or something.”

“Compare that to what happened when Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union and captured,” Cliff said, referring to the May 1, 1960, shooting down of a US U-2 spy plane near Svedlovsk, in the former Soviet Union.

“China is regularly accused of violating the Line of Actual Control along the China-India border with foot patrols, so it’s hard to see how sending UAVs over disputed areas would be considered qualitatively worse. Getting caught with one over Indian territory that China doesn’t claim would undoubtedly upset New Delhi, but certainly wouldn’t be considered an act of war,” he said.

Already, the Hindu newspaper reported on May 22 on what appears to have been a UAV sighting by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) force on a recent patrol in the difficult high terrain along India’s disputed mountainous border with China. (The sightings by the ITBP could not be documented with certainty, given the lack of sophisticated equipment at many outposts in India’s border regions.)

Military experts regard the incident as the latest indication of China’s expanding UAV program.

Another worrying possibility emerging from China’s embrace of UAV technology is that its unmanned missions could extend from traditional border surveillance and be applied to a definition of terrorism that is far more vague than that which has regulated US operational use in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

In fact, Beijing will very likely rely on UAV capability to address the so-called “three evils” of “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism,” meaning that “separatist” leaders from Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan could all be fair game.

Tsang said drone technology would likely apply to all such scenarios — including Taiwan.

“If there should be a military confrontation [over Taiwan], the PLA will unquestionably use all its most advanced weaponry. Drones and stealth helicopters would be used for ‘decapitation’ [attacks],” he said.

Alexander Huang (黃介正), a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the utility of UAVs was not limited to “anti-terrorist” operations, but was in fact very wide in conventional military actions, from reconnaissance to decapitation.

“For China, the UAV could be a useful, lower cost, low-intensity device in the ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] missions as part of its A2/AD [anti-access, area-denial] strategy,” over Taiwan, Huang said.

The implication is that Chinese UAVs could soon, if they aren’t already, enter foreign airspace or international waters to conduct reconnaissance, surveillance and perhaps even targeted killings, much as the US has done in recent years.

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