Could Downed US Drone Benefit China?

What are the implications for China’s indigenous UAV research and security in the Asia-Pacific region?

Reports of an intact American RQ-170 Sentinel drone brought down by Iranian authorities have triggered a media storm. It is difficult to determine the exact cause of the incident, the methods used to bring the drone down or what state the machine is in. This incident will highlight a number of burning issues for months and years to come. It points out a fundamental weakness in unmanned aircraft technologies and may undermine American confidence in employing drones. But one of the immediate concerns is the possibility that Tehran could allow Chinese authorities to inspect or even extract the drone and its technologies.

Is such a “terrifying” scenario the end of the world? Or to be more precise, what would be the implications for China’s indigenous UAV research and security in the Asia-Pacific region?

Allegations of state authorities giving China access to captured or shot down aviation technology are not new. Some analysts have speculated that China’s strategic cruise missile program has benefited from parts of the American UGM-109 Tomahawk acquired from Iraq, Afghanistan or Sudan. More recently, concerns that Pakistan gave China access to parts of a US stealth helicopter used in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden raised alarm bells.

On a related note, it was believed that China was able to decipher some of the sophisticated technologies and software on board the EP-3 signals reconnaissance aircraft that was forced to land on Hainan Island during the 2001 Sino-American “spy plane” incident.

In the case of the RQ-170 currently in the hands of Iran, transfer of its technology may in theory help China’s indigenous aviation industry. For example, the MiG-23s acquired from Egypt in 1976 were extremely useful for China’s own combat aircraft development, influencing the the J-8II Finback and canceled J-9 and Q-6. Depending on the extent to which the airframe was damaged and the security and encryption of its software, the downed RQ-170 could in theory give something for Chinese engineers to smile about. Its flying wing concept, propulsion, sensors and stealth technologies could benefit both domestic unmanned and manned aircraft projects.

But the transfer of its data or technologies to China (if it were to happen) will not be the “end of the world” nor would it result in a seismic shift of power in Beijing’s favor. It does not mean that we will be seeing an army of made-in-China Sentinel knockoffs ruling the skies over Taiwan or Japan.

The truth is that even if the Iranians were gracious enough to ship the entire RQ-170 specimen to China, it would not offer a decisive breakthrough or transformation in China’s indigenous stealth and UAV projects. China has already demonstrated to the world its ability to develop advanced stealth fighters with the unveiling of the J-20 prototype. Similarly, China’s domestic UAV industry is approaching an advance stage and it is unlikely that their existing designs require an RQ-170 energy lift to make them operational.

Multiple Chinese UAVs are reaching prototype stage and are expected to enter service within the next decade. Tactical systems include the Pterosaur, CH-3 and Pterodactyl I UAVs. These are capable of being armed with light air to ground precision guided munitions and designed to function in a similar role as the American MQ-1 Predator. In terms of strategic systems, the BZK-005 high altitude reconnaissance UAV is already in service. The most recent designs to emerge are the Soaring Dragon and Sky Wing high altitude UAVs. These are expected to perform a similar function to the American RQ-4 Global Hawk in terms of long-range surveillance over the Western Pacific.

In summary, fears that the RQ-170 in the hands of Iranian authorities could be dissected or obtained by China are grossly exaggerated. Such a scenario should not be ruled out as China has historically depended on acquiring advanced foreign aviation technology to enable its indigenous aviation industry to make critical breakthroughs. Moreover, the PLA may exploit this opportunity to develop methods of intercepting and eliminating UAVs as eyes and ears of American forces in a prospective conflict in the Far East.

However, given the state China’s indigenous unmanned aircraft industry is in, Beijing does not need an RQ-170 specimen to build its own UAVs. It already has dozens of prototypes or advanced concepts to choose from. Indigenous UAVs and their use by the PLA could potentially be a game changer in a distant future conflict. But China’s study or acquisition of a copy of the RQ-170, if it were to happen, is unlikely to change the game anytime soon.

This story first appeared on Asia Security Watch, December 8, 2011.