Cheap drones made in China could end up arming potential U.S. foes such as North Korea, Iran and terrorist organizations.
China already makes drones that don't quite match up to U.S. military drones, but for a fraction of the cost. The Chinese military envisions such unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) scouting out battlefield targets, guiding missile and artillery strikes, and swarming potential adversaries, such as U.S. carrier battle groups.
"In whatever future conflict scenario we're in five or 10 years from now, the proliferation of UAVs is going to complicate things for the U.S. military," said Ian Easton, a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute.
China has built a huge military-industrial complex to support its growing drone fleet, which consisted of about 280 military drones as of mid-2011, according to a report released by the Project 2049 Institute on March 11. Chinese manufacturers supplying the military and state agencies also have begun seeking foreign buyers in a global drone market that aerospace and defense market research firm Teal Group estimates to be worth $89 billion over the next 10 years.
Retired Chinese generals have stated on Chinese state television station CCTV that Chinese drone technology lags American technology by about five years, Easton said. However, Chinese manufacturers are touting their plans to build drones five or even 10 times cheaper than comparable U.S. drones, whose hardware alone costs $5 million to $10 million. [Video: RoboBees: Design Poses Intriguing Engineering Challenges]
The idea of cheap, China-made drones may not tempt countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia or NATO allies that want to buy the best U.S. or Israeli drone hardware. Instead, China is seeking buyers in the Middle East and Africa at glitzy expositions such as China’s biennial Zhuhai Air Show.
"In the area of the Middle East, there could be direct competition, and the Chinese would have an advantage because they can apparently make UAVs cheaper," Easton told TechNewsDaily. "For countries that don't demand the best technology, good enough would be good enough."
That means countries such as Syria might obtain Chinese drones for the surveillance or oppression of their own citizens, Easton said. He added that Chinese drones also could end up in the hands of North Korea or Iran — regional hotspots where the U.S. military may potentially find itself embroiled in future conflicts.
Iran has already sold its own crude drones to countries such as Syria and organizations such as Hezbollah, a militant group based in Lebanon and backed by Iran. In addition, China-made drones would allow countries like Iran and North Korea to obtain technology which Western countries refuse to sell.
"It's bad enough that China has that kind of capability, but the same capability could end up in the hands of the Iranians or North Koreans or a terrorist group like Hezbollah that Iran is cooperating with," Easton said.
The U.S. has already shown the world how battlefield drone surveillance and drone strikes can prove both effective and controversial. Still, the U.S. military faces a new challenge in detecting swarms of China-made drones during future conflicts, Easton said. Some drones may go undetected by radar because they can fly extremely low and may come in small sizes.
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