From Saudi Arabia to Myanmar and Iraq to Ethiopia, more and more militaries across the world are stockpiling Chinese combat drones and deploying them on the battlefield.
In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition has dispatched the Chinese aircraft, also known as uncrewed aerial vehicles or UAVs, as part of a devastating air campaign that has killed more than 8,000 Yemeni civilians in the past eight years. In Iraq, authorities say they used Chinese drones to carry out more than 260 air raids against ISIL (ISIS) targets as of mid-2018, with a success rate of nearly 100 percent.
In Myanmar, the military — armed with Chinese drones — has conducted hundreds of air attacks on civilians and ethnic armed groups opposed to its power grab two years ago, while in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s fleet of Chinese, Iranian and Turkish drones was critical in helping his forces thwart a rebel march in 2021 that threatened to overthrow his government.
Other buyers of China’s combat drones — aircraft that, in addition to intelligence gathering, can also fire air-to-surface missiles — include Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Pakistan and Serbia.
Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks global arms transfers, shows China has delivered some 282 combat drones to 17 countries in the past decade, making it the world’s leading exporter of the weaponised aircraft. By comparison, the United States — which has the most advanced UAVs in the world — has delivered just 12 combat drones in the same period, all of them to France and the United Kingdom, according to SIPRI data.
The US, however, still leads in the export of unarmed surveillance drones.
China’s domination of the global market for combat drones over the past decade is partly due to a vast state-funded effort that seeks to elevate the country’s armed forces to “world class standards”. Chinese President Xi Jinping has described drones as capable of “profoundly changing war scenarios” and pledged during the Communist Party’s Congress last year to “speed up the development of unmanned, intelligent combat capabilities”.
“Drones are an important part of China’s informatised warfare concept,” said John Schaus, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “Advanced capabilities like these allow China the ability to conduct missions far from its borders with far less infrastructure or political risk than if its military personnel were physically present,” he said.
While China is not known to have carried out a drone attack, it deployed the combat aircraft in exercises around Taiwan in September in the aftermath of then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the self-ruled island.
China considers Taiwan as part of its own territory and has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island.
And drones will play a critical role in any confrontation over Taiwan.
Fu Qianshao, a Chinese military aviation expert, told the Communist Party-owned Global Times tabloid in September that the unmanned aircraft will be among the first weapons to be deployed in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Straits, while Western analysts also say the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is likely to use large numbers of drones at the beginning of any war in a bid to overwhelm the territory’s air defences.
So far, the main focus of China’s drone programme has been on replicating the capabilities of other countries, said …….