Chinese UAV Industry Creates New Challenge for the US Air Force

China’s growing capability in the production of unmanned aerial vehicles, along with its lack of end-user restrictions, will require the U.S. Air Force to ramp up counteroffensive measures, panelists and attendees at the recent China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) conference told Air Force Magazine.

“That’s one of those things that scares me,” Brendan Mulvaney, CASI director, said in an interview.

Mulvaney believes that high-power microwave energy directed at a swarm of cheaply produced Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles is not enough to defeat the threat.

“We’ll be able to take out a whole bunch of drones, but I don’t know that that’s applicable everywhere, all the time,” he added.

The lower cost and lack of end-user restrictions means lesser developed countries can purchase and employ UAVs much in the same way Ukraine has used them to great effect against a better armed and financed Russia.

That possibility means added lethality to any nation or armed group desiring to target U.S. assets in the future.

“A smaller nation very well could have a whole ton of drones that we just haven’t thought about,” said Mulvaney.

The UAS threat, enhanced by China’s growing defense industry capability, was one of the themes discussed during a May 17 panel discussion on China-Russia cooperation held at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

“If you buy Chinese equipment, they’re not setting up restrictions on how it can be used, and where it can be used,” said David R. Markov of the Institute for Defense Analysis. “That is a benefit in particular parts of the world, particularly for unmanned aerial systems.”

Markov cited Saudi Arabia’s use of the Chinese UAV Wing Loong II, which can carry up to 480 kg of payload on 12 wing hard points, in operations in Yemen.

As of January 21, the State Department reported $126 billion in foreign military sales to Saudi Arabia, including high-end missile defense systems like the Patriot and Apache, Chinook, Blackhawk, and light attack helicopters.

None of the sales included U.S. armed drones.

The State Department says the United States works with the Saudi-led coalition to support the government of Yemen against Houthi rebels, but the U.S. still worked with Saudi Arabia “to minimize civilian casualties in this conflict.” Such worries have slowed or stopped Congressional foreign military sales in the past, perhaps leading Saudi Arabia to turn to China for its drones.

China Displacing Russia in Defense Technology

China’s technological development, in part boosted by years of cooperation with Russia’s defense industry, has positioned the Chinese defense industry on the cutting edge of new war technologies like UAS.

“China is really now a pacing threat for technology development around the world,” said Markov.

“China’s goal has been able to try and capture a significant portion of the market, and they’re particularly targeting the markets where the Russians are in central south and Southeast Asia,” he added. “China will continue to shape the direction and the character of these regional competitions.”

Markov expects China to supersede Russia in the African market as well, where a number of dictators and Democratic governments alike have gone after opposition and terrorist groups with unintended civilian casualties.

“On the arm sales piece, I think we’re gonna see China see a huge opportunity in markets where it previously hadn’t succeeded,” Markov assessed.

Markov said the proliferation of Chinese unmanned platforms will soon be a problem for the U.S. Air Force.

“The price point is so cheap, and the operating costs are so low that many of these countries can’t afford not to buy from China,” he said, pointing to Azerbaijan’s heavy use of UAS during its 2020 conflict with Armenia.

“We’re not doing nearly enough to deal with the unmanned systems problem,” he added. “I’m not sure we’re set or geared to think about that problem, and certainly not in the countermeasure side of the house.”