Combat Drones Made in China Are Coming to a Conflict Near You

A dozen years into its fight with the Islamic insurgent group Boko Haram, Nigeria is getting some new weapons: a pair of Wing Loong II drones from China. The deal is one of a growing number of sales by state-owned Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC), which has exported scores of the aircraft. The United Arab Emirates has used AVIC drones in Libya’s civil war, Egypt has attacked rebels in Sinai with them, and Saudi-led troops have deployed them in Yemen. The company’s drones “are now battle-tested,” says Heather Penney, a fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a think tank in Arlington, Va. “They’ve been able to feed lessons learned back into their manufacturing.”

Nigeria is getting AVIC’s second generation of Wing Loongs—the name means “pterodactyl”—which can fly as fast as 230 mph and as high as 30,000 feet, carrying a payload of a dozen missiles. Since 2015, when AVIC introduced the newer model, it’s produced 50 for export and an unknown number for China’s People’s Liberation Army. And it’s working on even more advanced aircraft, such as a stealth combat drone with a flying-wing design similar to that of the U.S. B-2 bomber. The drone program, combined with deliveries of fighter jets, trainers, transporters, and assault helicopters, has propelled AVIC into the upper ranks of the global arms trade. In 2019 it sold military equipment valued at $22.5 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), placing it sixth in the world, behind five U.S. companies.

AVIC’s drones have two big selling points: They’re cheaper than comparable aircraft from producers in the U.S. or Israel—the other primary manufacturers—and China doesn’t much care how they’re used, says Ulrike Franke, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “China is willing to export armed drones to almost anyone,” she says. AVIC didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Over the past decade, China has delivered 220 drones to 16 countries, according to Sipri. That’s prompted other nations to boost their capabilities in the field, says Michael Horowitz, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Japan, South Korea, and Belarus are developing drone technology. Turkey supplied drones that helped Azerbaijan defeat Armenia in last year’s conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia in January agreed to send drones to Myanmar and is working on longer-range models. Serbia and Pakistan say they intend to use purchases from China to seed their own programs. “Armed drone proliferation is inevitable because of Chinese exports,” Horowitz says.

The Chinese government rejects the charge that it’s fueling an arms race, saying it aims only to improve the defensive capabilities of its customers. And unlike the U.S., it refrains from meddling in their internal affairs, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a February press briefing. “We are prudent and responsible in exporting arms,” she said. “This is totally different from what the United States does.”

The Chinese drone push presents a challenge for President Biden as he tries to move beyond the Trump administration’s go-it-alone foreign policy. Last fall, Trump deemed AVIC and its subsidiaries part of the Chinese military, restricting their access to U.S. technology. But last summer he reinterpreted the Missile Technology Control Regime—a 1987 agreement, signed by more than 30 countries, that had long kept a lid on U.S. drone exports—to allow sales of many such aircraft.

Despite criticism from Democrats, Trump agreed to sell 18 General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drones to the UAE. In November the administration approved a $600 million deal to provide Taiwan with four Reapers; and the next month, Trump’s State Department informed Congress of a contract to sell four Reapers to Morocco following its establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. Although Biden has said he’s reviewing the UAE sale, all three deals are on track to be finalized.

AVIC is at the heart of a broader push by China to develop its aerospace industry, both civilian and military. China Aerospace Science & Technology Corp. has sold combat drones to Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Serbia—the first time a European country has deployed Chinese unmanned aircraft. China North Industries Group Corp. in November completed development of its Golden Eagle helicopter drones, which the Communist Party-controlled Global Times newspaper said were “designed to meet the demands of the arms trade.” Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, 12% owned by AVIC, is developing a jetliner to compete with the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. And AVIC has joint ventures with about 10 multinationals in China-focused civilian businesses such as aircraft components and avionics.

AVIC’s growing expertise is paying off in improved quality, says Pawel Paszak, director of the China Monitor program at the Warsaw Institute, a think tank in the Polish capital. Although its drones don’t match the best offerings from American and Israeli companies, they’re increasingly competitive—and the price differential is significant: AVIC’s top drones run $1 million to $2 million apiece, vs. more than $15 million for a comparable American model. “Maybe Chinese drones aren’t as good as American drones,” Paszak says. “But 15 drones instead of one, and without any fuss about human rights? This is a good offer.” —With Lucille Liu, Colum Murphy, and Nick Wadhams

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