The United States has long been the dominant designer, user, and seller of military drone technology. But China has quickly grown into a developer and competitive proliferator of its own in drone technology, which could have strategic implications for U.S. foreign policy in the South China Sea, and even around the globe. What are the geopolitical implications of China replacing Russia as the primary alternative supplier of weapons to countries both hostile and friendly to the United States? The Cipher Brief’s Levi Maxey spoke with Peter W. Singer, a Strategist and Senior Fellow at New America, about Chinese advances in drone technology and how their proliferation could become the AK-47s of tomorrow.
The Cipher Brief: What kind of advancements in drone technology have we seen come out of China?
Peter W. Singer: Essentially we have seen China move from being behind the curve on this technology, to one of the world leaders. And when I say world leaders, I don’t just mean user or seller of, but also designer of some incredibly cutting edge technology.
If you want to look across the different types of unmanned systems that the Chinese are now showing off, it’s incredible. It might be a solar-powered drone that has 130 feet long wings and designed to stay up in the air for months, setting flight records. It could be tiny, armed drones that are parallel with cutting edge ones U.S. special operations forces have. There is a system in the U.S. called Switchblade, which is basically a little drone that is about the size of a rolled up magazine that can be used for surveillance and can even convert into an armed role – you might describe it as a self-detonating or kamikaze drone. We have recently seen a Chinese version of this displayed prominently.
If you want to expand it from just unmanned aerial systems to robotics overall, it is equally impressive. As an example, China just showed off plans for the D3000, which is an armed, triple-hulled, autonomous warship. It is basically comparable to a U.S. system called ACTUV, which is still undergoing tests.
But when you are talking about unmanned aerial systems or armed robotic boats, is not only how they will likely equip China’s military in the future, but how frequently they are showing them off at trade shows. It’s changing the international marketplace.
TCB: The U.S. has strong export restrictions on which governments it can sell military drone technology to, but China, it seems, does not. Could Chinese companies begin taking over the UAV industry internationally by supplying countries that the U.S. does not?
Singer: Much like is happening with other weapons technologies, China is moving into a true competitor and some instances a replacement role. Actually where more of the replacement is happening is of Russia as the cheaper and maybe less restricted alternative supplier.
While U.S. law is often blamed for this, the reality is that it is often for reasons beyond that. It might be for straight up politics. There are certain nations that the U.S. will never sell to. Then there are other ones who we may be legally able to sell to them, but for whatever reason, the timing isn’t right or there is something going on in the relationship. Or it might be because, guess what, someone else got there and is able to make a sale either because they have worked their political relationships better, either strategically or personally, or because they are able to provide a cheaper product. It might not be as good, but if it is comparable and cheaper than that can be compelling to the buyer. So there are lots of different reasons.
There are definite issues going on with restrictions on who we can and can’t sell to, but they are never the sole cause and sometimes those restrictions are pointed to as if somehow if they could get this law changed, or the interpretation of it changed, all would be good – no. Essentially what is going on here is that China is offering itself up not just an alternative seller, but also an alternative seller of products that are comparable and cheaper.
TCB: Is China specifically selling military drone technology to countries in its national interests, for example, in Africa and the Middle East?
Singer: Absolutely, just like the United States does. When it comes to weapons, there are always ulterior motives at play when a sale is made. It might be to shore up an alliance, create a new one, undermine an existing relationship, or it might be related to the commercial side – a trade agreement.
Back in the Cold War, weapons sales were made to friends and allies and then those that you hoped would become your friends and allies. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were competitors in that regard. Then in the post-Cold War era, some of the geopolitics pulled out of it, but Russia was still that alternative supplier, either because it was cheaper or because there was some kind of restriction on whom the U.S. would sell to. What China has really done is move into Russia’s role. So if we are looking at unmanned systems, there are really not a lot of Russian products that are being viewed as alternatives in the way that China is marketing.
TCB: What are the strategic implications of this?
Singer: When you are thinking about Chinese systems – be it unmanned aerial systems or armed robotic tanks or warships – you have to think about it in a framework that is not just about China. It is akin to how the U.S. military had to think about the implications of the spread of big fighter jets to surface to air missiles to AK-47s – not just in the Red Army’s hand, but how they would be present in battlefields that the Russian weren’t serving in. And that is the same thing today when we look at the proliferation of these technologies.
We are seeing Chinese military drone technology pop up around the world, sometimes in the hands of actors that we would rather not see them have – maybe a potential future adversary – or in the hands of allies where they present some kind of complication to the relationship. We have seen Chinese drones used everywhere from Nigeria to the Iraqi army. With that also comes the presence of technicians or advisors that help operate these systems. There was an amusing clip where the Iraqi army released photo online of it using its new Chinese made drone, celebrating it, and the camera caught in the picture a Chinese technician.
So bottom line, it is not just a story of market expansion, it also a story of proliferation. And this is where robotics, unmanned aerial systems are different from a story of nuclear weapons. They have fairly low barriers to entry. The most powerful militaries have drones, and the not-so-well-equipped militaries are also operating them.
TCB: How has China sought to integrate drones into its military efforts overseas? Are these designed, much like U.S. drones, for surveillance and targeted strikes against non-state actors or is it rather designed to operate in contested airspace against conventional militaries?
Singer: This is where it is different from what has been the focus of U.S. use of the systems operationally over the last generation. Frankly almost all of the Chinese military vision for using unmanned systems has nothing to do with counterinsurgency, “drone strikes,” or drone warfare against terrorists or insurgent groups. Like any other military, it is framed in the most challenging operations that the Chinese think they are most likely to face.
The focus is primarily on detection of enemy vessels and aircraft at a distance, especially ones that are stealthy. So it is part of a larger discussion of anti-access, area denial (A2/AD). There is also a big focus on anti-submarine warfare where the Chinese feel that they are behind.
So to put it more directly, the Chinese vision is not against non-state actors as part of counterinsurgency doctrine, it is against the scenario of other highly advanced states – be it their neighbors or the United States. It fits in within a larger focus of Chinese military overwhelming modernization and productization – which is essentially bringing together new technologies, but also a more seamless exchange of data across them. You can see this is some of the systems they show off. For example, systems carry multiple sensors that will allow them to detect cruise missiles and stealthy planes. But the idea is that it is then feeding that information to a jet fighter such as a J-31 so that it can be used in targeting. There are a lot of comparable roles being looked at in the U.S. military in terms of its future vision as opposed to the way we have grown comfortable thinking about drones, which is primarily a counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism tool.