China confident with superior technology of its self-made drones

by Zhang Yiqian

○ Loosening of American-made Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) sales could benefit Indian military
○ An Indian drone that recently crashed on the Chinese side of the border discloses India's increasing military activities and need for using UAVs
○ China's rapid development of drone manufacturing, including the popular CH-5, could reshape market

As the US moves closer toward the possibility that it will loosen restrictions on foreign arms sales, India is looking closely.

The Donald Trump administration is considering relaxing arms sales restrictions, including reviewing export policies on unmanned weapon systems, in order to regain dominance in the market, in an initiative that could be launched as early as February, Reuters reported. Analysts have said that if the policy is relaxed, a large beneficiary will be India.

A recent opinion piece in the Hindu newspaper pointed out that if Trump "emphasizes the commercial benefits of arms sales and de-emphasizes the strategic angle, it could lead to a change in the dynamics of India-US defense trade, and bilateral trade in general. India, always wary of military alliances, will be more comfortable with weapons purchases as commercial deals."

If the US chooses to make its Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) available, the overall situation is worth pondering, experts say. "Recently, relations between US and India have been warming up and the US hopes India can become an important force in the South Asia region in containing China. So the increase in India's military ability is something the US wants to see," Wang Ya'nan, chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told the Global Times.

Timing To Loosen Up Sales

In recent months, Trump has stressed the "Indo-Pacific" strategy, which first emerged last year when Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, gave a speech praising India and accusing China of "undermining the international rules-based order" and undertaking "provocative actions" in the South China Sea. Analysts have said the strategy sets the tone to counter China.

This decision for the US to review export policies is also spurred by the growth in sales of UAVs from other countries including China. In an article titled "Unable to buy US military drones, allies place orders with China" last July, the Wall Street Journal explained that several countries in the Middle East and Africa have deployed weapons bought from China. According to satellite photos, drones such as CH-4 (Rainbow-4) and Wing Loong I started appearing in foreign militaries. 

Meanwhile, US export policy self-restricts its performance in the global market. The US is part of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal and voluntary partnership among 35 countries that seeks to limit the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by controlling exports of goods and technologies that could make a contribution to delivery systems for such weapons.

In this context, the Regime places particular focus on rockets and UAVs capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kilograms to a range of at least 300 kilometers, as well as on equipment, software and technology for such systems.

Furthermore, commentators have said the US is also afraid that general sales of UAVs will mean that other countries may possess its high-end technology. Correspondingly, US export policy has been relatively restrictive on the export of drones, as both military and civilian drones are only sold to close allies such as the UK, Japan and South Korea. 

It is written in the policy of the US Department of State's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which oversees most government-to-government arms transfers and the commercial export licensing of US-origin defense equipment and technologies, that each proposed transfer is carefully assessed on a case-by-case basis. Approval is only granted if found to further American foreign policy and its own national security interests. In addition, major defense transfers and sales may be subject to US Congressional notification.

India Purchase Causes Concerns

India's need to purchase UAVs is spurred by concerns about regional power balance. Currently, India has a large fleet of drones mainly with reconnaissance purposes. The Indian military has been craving bigger strike-capable drones, mainly from the US and Israel.

Wang said India has goals when it comes to purchasing UAVs, as it hopes for high-level equipment, a characteristic of its recent national defense development. Media reported that satellite images along with other reports suggest that Pakistan may be operating a China-made strike-capable, multi-role Wing Loong I drone, capable of carrying out complex assault operations. This may have alerted officials in New Delhi for the urgent need to acquire heavier armed drones as a deterrent.

"We have already taken notice of these reports. Be rest assured that necessary measures are being taken at the right places," a top Indian military official told the Asian Age.

Correspondingly, India's purchase of drones, especially from the US, has been alarming to neighboring countries. Last June, the US State Department approved the sale of 22 General Atomics MQ-9B Sea Guardians to India, which caused Pakistan to express concern, saying it would result in strategic imbalance in the region. 

Last August, General Atomics president David Alexander told reporters that the company was engaged with an unnamed foreign nation in the purchase of potential Avenger drones (formerly Predator C), which are unmanned combat aerial vehicles powered by turbofan engines and include stealth features. The Indian Defense News identified the unnamed country as India. 

"If India employs drones for military missions, it no doubt is concerned with China," Wang said. "If India has medium-high altitude long-endurance UAVs, it most possibly will use them at the Sino-Indian border, as well as for securing the Indian Ocean. The key issue is, if the US loosens up its exports, which type of UAV will it sell to India?"

Last December, the Chinese foreign ministry condemned India for invading Chinese airspace with a drone after the drone crashed on the Chinese side of the border. India argued that the incident was caused by a technical problem while China said it infringed on its territorial sovereignty. Foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang called on India to "stop the [drone] activities" near the border.

"The action of the Indian side violated China's territory and is not conducive to peace and tranquility in the border area," he said in a press conference.

China's Reliable Technology

Even though India's purchase is highly likely on agenda after the US loosens up sales, there is no need for China to be alarmed every time India makes a purchase, Wang said, as the Chinese military has its own long-term development agenda, including development of drones, he said.

Purchasing a few pieces of equipment also does not mean these can fit in well with India's overall military system.

"With all this equipment coming from different countries, in order to incorporate them into one combat system, there needs to be overall integration on communications and security of data link, which is difficult for India. The US may export excellent equipment but it may not help India with a military upgrade," Wang said. 

On the other hand, China has more confidence with its rapid development of drones in recent years. The CH-5 (Rainbow-5) drone, which debuted on the 11th Zhuhai Airshow in November 2016, is China's largest drone for reconnaissance, surveillance, patrols, target positioning and strike missions. 

The CH-5 is the latest unmanned combat aerial vehicle of the Rainbow series. Twice as big as its predecessors in the Rainbow series, the CH-5 can stay in the air for 60 hours and fly at an altitude of up to 10 kilometers. It has a maximum range of 10,000 kilometers carrying normal payloads, and is able to carry 16 air-to-surface missiles.

Shi Wen, chief engineer of the Rainbow drones, told the Global Times previously that even compared with its principal competitor, the US General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B), a hunter-killer drone, the CH-5 still has an advantage with its long flight duration and massive payload. The US MQ-9 can only operate for 14 to 15 hours and carry six missiles.

Chinese arms are "gaining international influence with skilled and reliable technology," Shi said, noting that the price factor only plays a minor role. Traditionally, the world's arms market was dominated by the US, Europe and Russia. As a latecomer, China has grown rapidly in recent years. The Rainbow series, for example, has been exported to more than 10 countries in recent years and has been tested in actual combat. 

"Some remaining work China needs to do include defense, such as accurate UAV survey and recognition; they are all in the works right now," Wang said.