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Report: China developing advanced drone fleet

by Bryant Jordan on March 13, 2013

The U.S. may own the skies now when it comes to drones, but China is fast developing strategic and tactical unmanned aerial vehicles capable of supporting ground, sea and air forces, and also subbing for satellite communications in the event they are taken out.

That’s the report from the Project 2049 Institute, a five-year-old think tank devoted to researching and tracking social, political, military and technological trends in the Asian Pacific.

In current numbers and capabilities, the Chinese fleet – estimated by the institute to be about 280 strong in 2011 – is no more than a quarter of the size of the U.S fleet. Published reports have indicated there are now at least 800 large drones – Predators, Reapers and the high-altitude Global Hawks among them – in operation around the world. That does not even count the smaller drones like the Raven that troops are able to launch by hand.

The Chinese began developing drones in the 1950s with some help from the Soviet Union. The United States was also working on UAVs at the time, primarily for reconnaissance, according to the UAV research history provided by the institute,

Drone aircraft generally lost out to manned platforms and satellites when it came to funding, according to “Air Force UAVs: The Secret History,” published in 2010 by the Mitchell Institute.

Since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. pumped more money and attention into UAVs.

But the Chinese not only are working to beef up the numbers but also the variety, backed up by a military and academic partnership that – not surprisingly – is a great deal closer than those in the West. China’s UAV research and development community has developed more than 50 designs, the institute found, of which the People’s Liberation Army funding what it considers the best.

As in the U.S., the Chinese are greatly interested in drones capable of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, precision strike and electronic warfare missions and data relay – communications.

The UAVs are spread throughout China’s army, navy and air force, though the PLA General Staff maintains its own UAVs for joint operations, according to the institute. China’s Second Artillery Corps – its strategic missile force – also appears to have high-altitude, long endurance UAV assets, while those assigned to army, navy and air force units are for tactical ops and training.

“In a crisis situation, selected UAV-equipped units may be apportioned to a Joint Campaign Command,” the institute says. “UAV data most likely would be fused with space-based ISR and ground-based over the horizon radar surveillance data within a [Joint command].”

There have been numerous Chinese military studies dealing with UAVs as communications relay platforms, according to the institute.

“In particular, Chinese researchers note that UAVs could provide a critical link between land-based command and control facilities and anti-ship missiles engaged in long range over-the-horizon attacks,” the think tank states. “One study also posited that high altitude UAVs equipped with data link payloads could substitute for communications satellites in the event of enemy anti-satellite attacks.”

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