Expert Commentary

Chinese Drone ‘Swarms’ Could Overwhelm U.S. at Sea

Doug Wise
Former Deputy Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

Since the time of the first kinetic attack by an unmanned aircraft in October of 2001, the United States has relied heavily on drone technology for its relatively inexpensive loitering capabilities and the geographical reach it enables. Persistent surveillance and targeted drone strikes have become a central tenet of the U.S. global war on terror. However, over the years, the U.S. has slowly lost its monopoly on the use of military drones, with near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China quickly developing their own remotely controlled weapons platforms. China, in particular, has grown into a world leader in drone development, which could have strategic implications for the U.S. foreign policy around the globe, especially in the South China Sea. The Cipher Brief’s Levi Maxey spoke with Doug Wise, the former Deputy Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, about how China sees drone technology playing a role as part of its military doctrine of asymmetric warfare.

The Cipher Brief: Why has China increasingly sought to develop drone technology for its military?

Doug Wise: The Chinese drone development program is part of a broader and much larger military modernization program, which is designed to close the gap between China and what it would consider to be near-peer or arguably superior adversaries – the U.S. and Russia. The biggest way they can close this gap is with technology.

In theory, the Chinese industrial base can produce the equivalent numbers to the capabilities of the United States, but that is going to be expensive, and it will require a huge army. The United States has significant power projection capabilities, both with aerial and maritime, to move forces to points of conflict and points of need. The Chinese are less able to do that, and maybe they don’t have to do that either.

What the Chinese have set upon doing is developing over the last few years some doctrine for the role of these unmanned vehicles, in which case they would have to define the use of these drones. While drones in the parlance of our time are normally referring to aerial platforms, these could be just as easily maritime, sub-maritime, or terrestrial platforms as well. Chinese doctrine at the moment is designed to include this disruptive technology of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, so that they can close the gap for the current military needs of China.

TCB: What are China’s primary military needs and how can drone technology be integrated into the military to meet those needs?

Wise: Chinese military objectives primarily include the projection of sovereign power close to the landmass of China, recovering its ability to control or manage its sovereign sea space along Chinese borders, control of the South China Sea, and project power throughout Asia – though not necessarily project power globally. That is their military doctrine.

It has been very clear over the last several years that the Chinese are considering the use of drones, and incorporating them into doctrine as part of the asymmetric approach of closing the gap between themselves and the United States. Drones provide an asymmetric capability that is going to give the Chinese the ability to perform a number of both lethal and nonlethal roles with these platforms.

The U.S. is completely dependent on large and major weapons systems, whereas the Chinese are pursuing some major weapons systems development, but are really focusing on mass platforms – the term of art is “swarms.” They are not spending as much money and effort on the larger autonomous or remotely operated vehicle platforms. Instead, they are looking at a deeply historic Chinese military ethos and philosophy that says a well structured, yet conventionally inferior adversary can still defeat a superior adversary – the United States.

Western platforms tend to be used for intelligence collection and for lethality. The Chinese are certainly doing that as well. But if you look at the Chinese commercial drone market and what they are selling to export customers, the Chinese are all for developing drones in a nonlethal role.

TCB: How do drones play an important role in the tensions taking place in the South China Sea? Are these integral to anti-access area denial  (A2/AD) efforts by the Chinese there?

Wise: This is where the swarming aspect comes into play. Should a U.S. warship all of sudden get swarmed by hundreds if not a thousand small unarmed drones, it could have disruptive and distracting effects – impacting electronics and target acquisition for U.S. weapons systems by blinding them. There an infinite number of roles swarms of nonlethal drones could play.

By having the nonlethal drone military capability, it also gives the Chinese a non-kinetic way to conduct military operations in the prosecution of the sovereign Chinese seas – expedite control of a disputed island or interdict maritime traffic to control the waters. This allows them to project tactical military power that doesn’t cross that threshold into armed conflict – another dimension of Chinese military doctrine.

The one advantage that the U.S. has over is space communications architecture, which allows U.S. platforms to be used in an over-the-horizon fashion from across the globe. The Chinese communications architecture is less sophisticated, which is not a problem for them because they are not using these platforms for global power projection. They are instead going to use them for power projection relatively close to the Chinese landmass, and in maritime areas in Asia.

Is drone technology useful to China globally similar to the context of the U.S. military power globally? Perhaps not, but it certainly offers China a significant asymmetric capability closer to the mainland.

TCB: In what ways are we seeing China incorporate new levels of artificial intelligence and machine learning into their drone fleets?

Wise: The smaller the scale of the platform, the less sophisticated it is going to be, the less processing power you can put onboard, and the less data storage and data management you can have. So collectively a swarm of small drones can have a tactical impact, but individually a single drone will not. In order to get that collective advantage – the area denial, area disruption, or even offensive disruption – you have to get collective behavior.

The only way you are going to do that is with very sophisticated command and control systems, as traditional command and control architecture just isn’t going to get you there. So it has to have artificial intelligence that binds the behavior of one platform to the behavior of the others and produces what will be a focused collective outcome by, in this case, the Chinese military commander. It will require artificial intelligence without question.

TCB: While we have not seen Chinese use this technology yet for global power projection, they have begun expanding their military presence abroad, such as with their new base in Djibouti. Do you anticipate a move towards using drone technology to secure critical Chinese assets in Africa or the Middle East from there?

Wise: It would be a very natural extension. If you look at any nation-state that has presence outside of its own sovereign territory, they want to provide some safety and security for that investment. As the Chinese now have a full-fledged multidimensional military base in Djibouti, I would be surprised if the Chinese didn’t begin using drone technology to provide that safety and security or to enable the Chinese military investment there to actually conduct operations – whether that is counter terrorism, maritime interdiction, or simply self-preservation. At the moment there is only one Chinese international military base – in Djibouti. Most of the Chinese global power projection is not military, and this is where the global drone market comes into play.

In spite of what many would believe, the U.S. has very significant military export controls. We go to great lengths to screen those who receive our weapons. The U.S. military drone market segment is much smaller than perhaps what might be the Chinese market. The Chinese are taking advantage of our own self-imposed restrictions and selling to governments that the U.S. would otherwise not export to for moral concerns.

TCB: How is the U.S. seeking to counter Chinese drone tech?

Wise: As we have seen with the overarching concern over the terrorist application of drones, there are going to be kinetic, physical, or electronic tools developed to blunt the abilities of these Chinese platforms. In the aerial context, you can blind them, shoot them out of the sky, and make them unable to communicate with their headquarters or adjoining platforms. But how do you do that with a platform of hundreds or thousands of drones that only have a visual cross-section of two to three feet? I would also presume the Chinese are pursuing variants of these small drone swarms to make them even harder to see and counteract.

The Author is Doug Wise

Douglas H. Wise served as Deputy Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from August 2014 until August 2016. Following 20 years of active duty in the Army where he served as an infantry and special operations officer, he spent the remainder of his career at CIA. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point with a Bachelor of Science degree, and also graduated from the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Wise earned Master's... Read More

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