09 February 2015

Major China UAV Development & Export Survey by Shephard Media Asia-Pacific Editor Gordon Arthur in Unmanned Vehicles

Gordon Arthur, “Out of the Red,” Unmanned Vehicles 20.1 (February/March 2015): 31-38.

China’s indigenous unmanned vehicles industry is clearly playing catch-up with Western manufacturers, but it is starting to close the gap and seize export opportunities. Gordon Arthur examines the country’s recent technological advances and asks: what next?

The capability of China’s unmanned vehicle industry is maturing. Numerous companies and institutions are designing, experimenting with and producing craft, and if the recent air show in Zhuhai was indicative of the country’s intentions, then it’s set to become a major force on the export scene too. …

Andrew Erickson, associate professor at the strategic research department of the US Naval War College, commented to Unmanned Vehicles: ‘One of China’s first export UAVs, it appears to have been developed rapidly (over 5-6 years) to capitalise on a potential market niche that the US has left open through self-restriction to support arms control ideals. ‘It will likely appeal to a range of Middle Eastern and Asian customers,’ continued Erickson. ‘The UAE and Egypt may already have procured it, while Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia are said to be closely considering purchases of their own.’ …

Erickson added: ‘The profusion of UAV programmes and products is merely one of the more prominent examples of a significant trend across China’s defence industry. Burgeoning national resources, and a delay in diversion to other societal priorities that could ultimately close the window on this golden allocation era, has enabled policymakers to lavish tremendous funding on multiple research institutes, conglomerates and production facilities.’

‘China’s UAV sector benefits from a particularly dynamic combination of state-run enterprises, such as the PLAAF UAV Combat Laboratory [established in 2007] and the Committee on Planning for Aerial Vehicles [established in 2006]; and private concerns such as the Northwestern Polytechnic University ASN Technology Group in Xi’an.

At Airshow China 2014, there seemed to be a maturing of designs, with more production-ready craft on show. Erickson concurred: ‘While the efficiency of translating these resources into fielded systems remains uneven and uncertain, in aggregate this has allowed for clever adaptations and rapid progress. Initial results are clearly visible at Zhuhai, in Internet photos and gradually in China’s own forces. They will ultimately be visible in the foreign forces that Chinese entities supply.’ …

Erickson noted: ‘However, major Chinese resource dedication and technical expertise in this area should ultimately yield more innovative, indigenously grounded designs that are closer in capability to those of world leaders such as the US and Israel. They may even come to encapsulate new approaches, such as incorporating features from China’s already advanced cruise missiles.’

The export sector is clearly a focus for China. Erickson concluded: ‘There should be export market segments open to China even at a lower level of technical sophistication. Given China’s greater focus on developing armed UAVs, for instance, it is even conceivable that Russia might purchase them from China.’

Further analysis: 

Andrew S. Erickson, Hanlu Lu, Kathryn Bryan, and Samuel Septembre, “Research, Development, and Acquisition in China’s Aviation Industry: J-10 and Pterodactyl UAV,” in Kevin Pollpeter, ed., Getting to Innovation: Assessing China’s Defense Research, Development, and Acquisition System 7.8 (La Jolla, CA: University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, January 2014), 62-66.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “China Has Drones. Now What? When Beijing Will—and Won’t—Use Its UAVs,” Foreign Affairs, 23 May 2013.