Report: China developing advanced drone fleet

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.”

About the Author

Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is an associate editor and White House correspondent for Military.com. Bryant covers all corners of the military arena, is an expert on "Don't Ask Don't Tell" issues, religious proselytizing and other ongoing military policy issues. He has covered Air Force support missions during the Kosovo War and in 2006 the aero-medical evacuation mission out of Balad Air Base, Iraq.A journalist since 1979, Jordan also covered stories in Lebanon, Gaza and Morocco. During the Vietnam War he was assigned to 15th Admin. Co., 1st Cavalry Division, Bien Hoa Army Base. Before joining Military.com Jordan was a staff writer and deputy news editor for Military Timesnewspapers in Springfield, Va.

24 Comments on "Report: China developing advanced drone fleet"

  1. Well more China paranoia. From what ive read looks like there invested in unmanned spy drones but lack jet powered attack drone we have for now.

  2. When China reach the moon then I'll take notice about their technological capabilities, till then I would'nt worry about it.

  3. But but but Europe's the threat right?

    We'll never have to worry about a Pacific war correct?

  4. Part of the reason we have never won a war against them is we have never fought them without restraint. In Korea they used virtually no tactics it was mass and charge which if we would have been allowed by the politicians to stem the flow from China we would not have the problems with NK that we have today. Not quite the same with Vietnam but very close there was more Russian influence in that war than Chinese. The problem I am most concerned with in regards to China is technology. We are WAY to reliant on the Chinese for parts which if not properly inspected or tested could be a huge problem a small RF chip with a simple executable i.e shut down or simply burn out a circuit and any piece of equipment with that board is done. This is very simple to do. We have always seemed to play the short game where China has played the long. A very close watch needs to be kept on the Dragon.

  5. I thaught IS supplies heron drones to CH?

  6. Ugh, white hub caps are like sooo last century.

  7. If we don't stop our electronic leaks of course they can catch up with us, they just steal it. Low start up costs that way.

  8. I'm glad the Navy's DRFM jammers on EA-18Gs still kick ass.

  9. Is there a reason why drones seem to always be painted white?

  10. stephn russell | March 13, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Reply

    If have ship acess, can do overflights over Hawaii or VA alone
    Scary if have updated spy tech for Live Feed to Hqs.

  11. You have to love the "we only lost because we chose to" excuse. When did our military become so lame ?

  12. "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."

    Bear in mind this is the research structure used to fund basic research in the US. Pour money into NIH and earmark extramural research at academic institutions. It's been a good way to push discovery along.

    One can only hope their defense establishment takes a page from the free market and overpromises and under-delivers at a premium.

  13. The age of America is ending

  14. I guess the truck is still more expensive and complex than the drone it carries … but china is developing fast and will pose a serious competitor in the future.
    Especially when it comes to drones the field is (in comperassant) plainly levelled. Closing up to the US may not be as difficult as it seems – especially if I remember the chart that has been shown along with the article here about the chinese x37b

  15. China is a country that prefers men than women.It has been reported that when girls are born they are drowned or killed in some way.Not only is their population growing older but without women they can not reproduce. Men can not reproduce with each other so what happens when there are no women to produce more Chinese? What kind of life is that?

  16. Marcellus Hambrick | March 15, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  17. Marcellus Hambrick | March 15, 2013 at 11:57 pm | Reply
  18. Anthony u r really not up to date, the last 10 years, especially nowdays girls are more preferred than boys in China. Mainly due to huge pressure to have boys as parent need to buy house to their son otherwise no parent will allow their daughter to one not owning house. Its china culture thing, the first thing a girl would ask to a man before they go into relationship or marriage.

  19. A Yellow Sea encounter is not all that unrealistic, Japan Defense and the PRC"s newly untried weapons are in direct opposition for major oil deposits and shipping lanes. The Uncredentialed is making his way to Israel, red flags fly and I suspect he needs excuses for tightening his agenda here at home. His job is in jeopardy and he may be creating a insurance policy with our allies to put a stop to his ouster…America Beware.

  20. Anthony, if ur last comment is to reply my comment then i want to tell you that i’m n expat working n living in China for the last6 years. Besides my comment is just an information for share but ur reply really surprise me n show how ‘educated’ you are!

  21. How I read it: China copying other country's drones

  22. Its a copy of yours [USA] anyway, they stole the plans years ago.
    Message to USA make *fake* plans with unit issues so that they will copy it faults and all :-)

  23. China= Copy

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