By Kota Mallikarjuna Gupta
Technological Display is one of the power projection strategy deployed by nation-states in geopolitics. The Display of military technological advancements at military parades, military exercises, and exhibitions transmit messages for friends, competitors, and prospective buyers in the global military-industrial complex. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) / Drones have emerged as a major trading item in both civilian and military domains with its multi-purpose uses across various fields.
Drone technologies considered to be critical for economic growth based on next-generation technological advancements. Drone technologies deployed on-air and underwater surfaces for military purposes. Military Drones are deployed in counter-terrorism operations by the United States Air Force (USAF) and Special Activities Division of Central Intelligence Agency to target terrorist leaders operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2004.
Heavy usage of UAVs in counter-terror operations in the Af-Pak region under American President Barak Obama's tenure further increased the demand of UAVs among regional military players like China, India, and Pakistan. The Chinese thinking on US military technologies highlighted in recent Defence White Paper released by State Council Information Office in July 2019.
The paper considers American priorities for technological innovation is to achieve total military superiority and highlights the prevailing global trend for the development of long-range precision, intelligent, stealth, or unmanned weaponry. This was the third defence white paper released under the presidency of Xi Jinping, which prominently highlights his thoughts on China's National Defence in the ‘New Era’.
While speaking at the 70th anniversary of Chinese Air Force (PLAAF), Xi Jinping called for making it into a world-class Air Force.
The strategic goals of China National Defence in the new era are mechanization of armed forces by 2020 with enhanced information technologies. Unmanned military vehicles have a major role in achieving these strategic military goals. According to Fu Qianshao, a Chinese air defence expert, China operates UAV's like GJ-2 armed reconnaissance drone, GJ-11 stealth attack drone, and WZ-8 reconnaissance drone operating at high speed and high altitude. He also expressed the possibility of China developing more variants of UAVs.
Chinese military tested its first unmanned chopper (AR500C) designed explicitly for plateau conditions on May 20, at Poyang county of Jiangxi Province. This unmanned helicopter has a takeoff weight of 500 kilograms with a flight ceiling of 6700 meters and a maximum speed of 170 kilometres per hour. It can stay in the air for five hours with autonomous takeoffs and landings during an operation. Designed by Helicopter Research and Development Institute of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), AR500C is capable of carrying out tasks like electronic jamming, aerial search, fire suppression, maritime surveillance, tracing nuclear and chemical leaks. The development work on this project was initiated in 2019 with a specific focus on the engine, rotor wing, aerodynamics, and composite materials and assembled it in March 2020, before the initial test.
The Display of Chinese military UAVs at various military parades and military exercises has increased over the years. Many Chinese military drones were on Display in 2019 for the first time. The Air defence command attached to PLA Xizang (Tibet) Military command launched UAV for reconnaissance purposes in a real combat scenario during a military exercise in November 2019. Similarly, PLA Xinjiang military command tested UAV in a mock hostile targeted airspace during a live test fire held at the Tianshan Mountains during September- October 2019.
In August last year, during a joint counter-terrorism military exercise with Tajikistan, China used drones for reconnaissance and surveillance role.
PLA’s Western Theater Command summary reports after military exercises prominently highlight the efficiency of military forces increased with remote delivery of explosives using drones and functioning of digital equipment which increased the troop's capabilities in mountainous regions. PLA Western Theater command jurisdiction includes Line of Actual Control (LAC) bordering with India. The deployment of UAV in large numbers in PLA Western Military Command will increase the military imbalance between India and China in terms of technological warfare capacities.
Similarly, drones have captured global attention during the recently held 70th Anniversary Parade held on October 1, 2019, at Tiananmen Square, Beijing. This frequent public Display of various weapon systems is a sign of increased confidence, according to various Chinese military experts. In the same parade, China displayed WZ-8 reconnaissance drone, stealth attack drone, and its latest HSU001 unmanned underwater vehicle (LDUUV).
According to Jane's World Navies 2017, the Chinese Navy operates several UAV's like ASN-209, known as Silver Eagle, BZK-005 or Soaring Dragon, Lijian, or Sharp Sword for more than a decade. Xian Aircraft Company (XAC), established in 1958, has manufactured ASN-9, ASN-206, ASN-207, and ASN -209 UAVs, which are operated by the Chinese Navy.
Chinese military UAV manufacturers supply to both domestic and international arms markets. West Asian countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia have purchased and deployed Chinese UAVs in Yemen. Wing Loong I and Wing Loong II, which can carry missiles and laser-guided bombs, are operational with UAE and CH-4 and Wing Loong II are with Saudi Arabia. Both countries share very close security relations with the United States.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Database, China supplied 18 ASN-209 drones to Egypt during 2012-2014 and 10 Wing Loong –II in 2018. India's western neighbour Pakistan received 20 CH-3 UAVs during 2013-2016 and five Wing-Loong I in 2015. Algeria purchased five CH-3, and CH-4 variants and Indonesia purchased four Wing Loong-I drones in 2018.
Iraq also purchased four CH-4B armed variants in 2018. Similarly, Jordon purchased six CH-4 drones from China in 2016. Kazakhstan opted for three Wing-Loong-I drones from China in 2015. India's Eastern Neighbour Myanmar opted to purchase 12 CH-3 UAVs from China during 2014-15. Nigeria purchased five CH-3 UAVs in 2014. China exported Turkmenistan two CH-3 UAVs and two WJ-600 drones in 2016. However, UAE and Saudi Arabia are the largest importers of Chinese drones in the last few years.
Saudi Arabia purchased 15 Wing Loong-I during 2015-17, 15 Wing Loong -II during 2017-18, and five CH-4 drones in 2014. Chinese supplied UAE with 25 Wing Loong I during 2013-17 and 15 Wing Loong –II during 2017-18. Overall, China dominated the Asian and African defence markets with its unmanned aerial systems under Xi Jinping's leadership since March 2013. Countries in the Indian Ocean region have opted for military drones from China being employed in maritime security and coastal security roles.
Diverse uses of unmanned vehicle technologies by the Chinese military pose security challenges for the Indian military. The rapid development of unmanned weapons, specifically for high altitude warfare, should be closely monitored and observed by Indian military planners. These autonomous weapons are handy during military standoffs at higher altitudes for surveillance and military operations. Investments are necessary from the Indian public and private sector in research and production of unmanned vehicles technologies for military uses.
*Author is a Doctoral Candidate (Chinese Studies) at Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed here are personal.