China's fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, could be technologically superior to those in the American arsenal and might have the ability to "swarm" in attacking an American aircraft carrier, according to a new analysis of the country's program.
China first started publicly flying drones in October, 2009, during its National Day parade. Since then, it had stockpiled at least 280 UAVs as of 2011 that could be used for "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, precision strike missions and electronic warfare missions," according to the report, released by the Project 2049 Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank. Since then, the country has likely manufactured many more, lead author Ian Easton says.
"Chinese UAV technology is a woefully understudied topic," he says, adding that there's reason to believe that China has either already surpassed U.S. prowess in unmanned air technology or will soon do so. "They're certainly far more advanced than I expected them to be. You get the impression they're doing very advanced, cutting-edge research."
Like in many other industries, Easton says "there's no question" China likely caught up to the U.S. with a cyber warfare campaign to steal technological secrets —the country has UAVs "that look exactly like our Predator or the Global Hawk."
"I would be shocked if their cyber espionage was not feeding into their UAV development," he says. "But they also have a large research and development infrastructure on their side informing new technology developments."
According to Easton, who studied more than 100 Chinese-language military technology journals, official government reports and news reports out of Taiwan, the Chinese see drones as a platform to wage war at the "highest level of conflict." Chinese documents suggest that the country's People's Liberation Army "envision[s] attacking U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups with swarms of multi-mission UAVs."
While the American military has mainly used drones for reconnaissance in the Middle East and Northern Africa and precision strikes against small groups of insurgents or terrorists, Chinese reports suggest that they plan to use the drones in the event of a conventional war. While American drones are rarely lost overseas, China envisions attacks "with initial waves of decoy drones" followed by swarms of strike drones that would often be shot down during their mission.
"When the Chinese look at UAVs, they see tremendous capabilities for high-end conflict. We've been using them for low-intensity situations," Easton says. "The Chinese have done an overwhelming number of studies discussing using UAVs as having the capabilities of hitting U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups. That's what they're planning to do."
Easton says that in China, UAV development is studied by nearly every company that has its hands in aerospace technology. Other military tools are often built by a couple companies focused in a city or two, but the sheer scale of the Chinese drone industry might lead the country to innovate faster than the U.S. can.
"We generally don't worry about the Chinese building a better submarine, fighter plane, or aircraft carrier than us, but with UAVs, I think it might be a little different," he says. "They have organized their UAV programs in such a way where they could be very innovative in terms of weapon systems."