Chinese Military Might Look Inward With New Drone

Unmanned aerial vehicles could be used by China for internal surveillance.

An unmanned aerial vehicle spotted near Chengdu, China, June 2011
An unmanned aerial vehicle spotted near Chengdu, China, June 2011 (China Defense Mashup)

Recently, at the ninth biennial China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, the China Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) showed off a full-scale version of its new unmanned aerial vehicle. The Yi Long, which AVIC officials labeled a proof of concept model that will see further development before it is deployed, can carry two missiles and has the distinctive bulbous outline of a plane designed to contain a veritable arsenal of electronic warfare and surveillance systems.

While the Yi Long will likely not be as immediately effective as the relatively veteran Predator, Avenger and other American military platforms that it clearly resembles, the move toward the capacity to deploy drone forces says a lot about the mentality surrounding China’s future airpower calculations.

Most prominently, it suggests that the military leadership in China has seen America’s extensive use of unmanned aerial technologies in Afghanistan and Iraq as an indication of where war fighting capabilities will be in the future.

Drones have been used by American forces in those theaters for a range of missions and have often afforded the military a measure of awareness or control over areas that would otherwise be logistically difficult or costly to patrol. Such vehicles, particularly those with small radar cross sections or other stealth features, have also given American military and paramilitary actors the opportunity to gather complex intelligence in or near contested airspace with a diminished risk of losses.

These and other successes enjoyed by drone aircraft in different mission roles with the American armed forces make it fairly easy to see, as Defense News reports, why China likely sees the technology as a major area of opportunity for potential future operations to the nation’s south and east. Drones are undoubtedly being envisioned by many as an additional resource for providing reconnaissance and added strike support in a future conflict over Taiwan or other territories in China’s near waters. Indeed, given President Hu Jintao’s recent exhortations on the subject of enhancing the ability of the military to win localized conflicts “in an information age,” it seems likely that drone forces will be widely deployed to compliment conventional manned forces in the future.

It should also be pointed out that UAVs could play a role in the development of China’s internal security apparatus and that domestic use might actually have a greater, if more indirect, impact on the international security considerations of both China and neighboring powers.

Although nowhere near the level of the 1989 student protests, popular unrest presently exists in China and is a serious source of concern for the government. In dealing with issues of dissent, such as Uyghur demonstrations in Xinjiang and the case of the blind civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng, the ruling Communist Party has made clear that it is perfectly willing to facilitate free-market societal development with one hand while suppressing what it sees as rebellious behavior with the other.

Drones could augment the government’s ability to affect this dynamic. Though large police forces would undoubtedly continue to operate conventionally in areas of concern, unmanned aerial vehicles would allow the army to affect measured control over large areas more effectively than is presently being done through the deployment of thousands of national and provincial servicemen. They would also give internal forces the ability to strike at dissident elements, such as they are defined by the Chinese government, without having to mobilize significant manpower.

At a million dollars a pop, a legion of these drones monitoring internal developments or acting to eliminate dissidents, in the name of protecting against extremism, terrorism, etc., would still be cheaper than hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground — and a good deal less intrusive. The removal of some troops may go a long way to winning trust from local populations while the use of drones might dissuade open dissent.

The upshot internationally would be the diversion of military efforts to broader concerns and more advanced, less crowd control minded capabilities.