China Has Already Won the Drone Wars
Chinese companies are proving that America is not first in the UAV export market. Can Trump roll that back?
AMMAN, Jordan — At a military airfield on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, three American businessmen stood admiring the star exhibit, which looked eerily familiar: a large drone, armed with weapons under its wings, with a domed front.
“They brought the Predator here,” said one, in reference to the ubiquitous U.S. drone used in wars from Bosnia to Iraq.
“That is not a Predator,” another countered.
The drone on display was, in fact, a Chinese unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called the Rainbow CH-4, which has quickly spread around the world. Jordan bought the drone in 2015 but displayed it publicly for the first time this year at the Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference, known as SOFEX, a biennial event where companies market their latest wares.
Once upon a time, the sight would have been unthinkable: The MQ-1 Predator and its successor, the more lethal MQ-9 Reaper, were for more than a decade synonymous with armed drones. But that now is changing, not because Beijing has built a better drone but because it has been willing to sell them to countries where the United States wouldn’t.
For years, advocates of U.S. arms sales bemoaned tight export restrictions on armed drones, which has allowed China to move in on a lucrative market while depriving American companies of valuable business. Jordan had originally requested to buy the Reaper, made by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, but was turned down. When Beijing subsequently secured the deal, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter lamented in late 2015 that “China is seizing the opportunity.”
More than two years later, China’s growing share of the armed drone market is on display. To date, only the United Kingdom, France, and Italy have bought an armed version of the MQ-9 Reaper, while other U.S. allies, including Jordan, are flying Chinese drones, such as the CH-4.
The United States now belatedly is trying to recapture the armed drone market. For years, U.S. companies were restricted from such sales, in part as a result of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an international pact that aims to curb the export of certain long-range cruise missiles and drones. (China is not a signatory to the agreement.)
But last month, the Trump administration, as part of its “Buy American” push, announced a new policy intended to loosen export restrictions on armed drones. In announcing the changes, Peter Navarro, President Donald Trump’s trade advisor, blasted “Chinese replicas” of American drones “deployed on the runways in the Middle East.” Overly restrictive policies had put the United States in danger of losing out on an estimated $50 billion international market for drones, according to Navarro. “The administration’s [unmanned aerial systems] export policy will level the playing field by enabling U.S. firms to increase direct sales to authorized allies and partners,” he said.
But the new export policy doesn’t appear to have made any immediate impact. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which makes the Reaper, had a modest exhibit at SOFEX and was advertising only unarmed versions of its aircraft.
“We’re still in the process of evaluating the recent Export Policy announcement and its impact on potential sales,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in response to a question about potential sales. “At this point, it’s too soon to comment.”
And though SOFEX featured an entire pavilion for U.S. companies selling weapons, none, other than General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, appeared to be offering drones, let alone armed drones.
Even U.S. officials say it’s unclear how the new drone regulations will be implemented.
“I don’t know the answer — that’s relatively new — and I don’t even have the talking points on how we’re supposed to respond to that,” says Dave Dornblaser, the director of the Washington field office for U.S. Army Security Assistance Command, when asked at SOFEX about the new regulations. “I can tell you there is quite a bit of interest in UAVs.”
Even with the Trump administration reforms, it may ultimately be too late to capture an export market dominated by China, as well as Israel.
“The Chinese have made a lot of inroads into the market, and U.S. export policy has definitely helped them, because the U.S. has stayed out of a lot of potential markets,” says Philip Finnegan, the director of corporate analysis at Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “While some areas might be filled by Israeli manufacturers who are very active, the Middle East is one where the Israelis aren’t active for obvious reasons. And so the Chinese have filled the void.”
The CH-4, whose resemblance to the iconic Predator is no accident, follows a long tradition of Chinese technology manufacturing, whether in cars or smartphones: Make it look like a name-brand Western equivalent, but build it cheaper and good enough to get the job done. (Amusingly, a video at the show advertising the CH-4 called it “one of the best” UAVs in the world, as in, not the best.) Analysts have even suggested, albeit without proof, that China pilfered U.S. technical information for its drone program.
China’s sales have been buoyed by developing countries looking to fight insurgencies, and one of the factors driving recent buys, including Iraq’s, has been the war on the Islamic State, which has also proved an advertising boon to the Chinese.
At the exhibit area for China’s Aerospace Long-March International Trade Co., the maker of the CH-4, a video promoting the company’s drones featured extensive footage released by the Iraqi military showing strikes on Islamic State fighters. The Iraq military has already conducted at least 260 strikes against Islamic State militants using the CH-4, with close to 100 percent accuracy, according to a Chinese-language article. (A Jordanian military officer told Foreign Policy that his country’s CH-4s, which are armed with Chinese AR-1 anti-tank missiles, similar to the American Hellfire, have not fired weapons in combat yet.)
Since China doesn’t disclose all of its international customers, it’s hard to know the full extent of its sales, but a video on display at the exhibit acknowledged Algeria, Nigeria, Jordan, Zambia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Myanmar as customers.
Notably absent from that list is the United Arab Emirates, which reportedly received its first CH-4 last year. FP reported last month that the UAE used its Chinese drone to assassinate a Houthi leader in Yemen.
While the Americans are just now moving forward with selling armed drones, China has been going full steam ahead. The CH-4 — a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV — is part of series of Rainbow drones produced by Aerospace Long-March International.
While the CH-4 physically resembles the American Reaper, it is not as capable. It does not, for example, have a satellite link, which means it must be operated within line of sight, which limits its range and battlefield utility. China’s newest drone, the CH-5, will have a satellite link.
Aerospace Long-March International was also marketing smaller drones at SOFEX, including its CH-901, a minidrone that the company calls a “suicide UAV.”
While eager to sell its products, the company is also wary of scrutiny. Company representatives at the show declined to speak to a reporter and refused to give business cards to another visitor, an American who introduced himself as a “policy advisor.”
Another Chinese company, called Shenzhen Precision Technology Co., based in Shenzhen City, was at SOFEX advertising its small combat drone that can shoot grenades. The 35-kilogram vertical takeoff and landing drone can stay aloft for 20 minutes and has a range of 8 kilometers.
Xue Kun, the company’s executive director, says it took him four years to design the drone, which he’s selling, along with the ground station, for $300,000 each. He calls the concept an “air force in a truck,” because three can be loaded into a specially designed carrying case attached to a vehicle.
“If you buy many, you can get a discount,” he says. “I can also produce them locally, in your country.”
He hasn’t sold any of his combat drones abroad yet — he says they are used now only by Chinese police — but he hopes his attendance at SOFEX, his first opportunity to display a mock-up of the drone at an international arms exhibition, would help drum up sales.
Operating Chinese drones rather than American ones offers both economic and political advantages for some countries. The Chinese drones are much cheaper — typically a quarter of the price of similar American systems. China also is less likely to dictate how other countries use them, whereas U.S. exports can come with restrictions.
The problem with allowing allies to buy Chinese drones is not just financial. As Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow at the U.K.-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, points out, when foreign countries buy American weapons, the U.S. government has the ability to exercise some control over how that technology is used. “It’s a balancing act, and it’s very difficult to get right,” he says of U.S. export law.
The Chinese approach to selling weapons, he says, is much more “transactional.”
Now that the export restrictions are being loosened, the United States does have the ability to compete for more international sales, but the problem is that many countries have already found what they need in Chinese drones. Now, Barrie says, those countries might simply ask themselves: ‘‘Is the requirement fulfilled? This Chinese stuff is quite good.”
And then, even when they buy more drones, those countries may simply stick with China. “Once you open the door,” Barrie says, “there’s no guarantee you can close it.”