chinese drone
An unmanned swarm carrier system developed by Chinese company Zhongtian Feilong conducts a test flight in late March 2021. Photo: screenshot from a video released by Zhongtian Feilong on 1 April

China has Achieved Total Global Drone Supremacy

China dominates the drone market, both from a commercial and militairy perspective.

In just over one hundred years, drones have gone from radio-controlled, full-scale aircraft to sophisticated miniature weapons and surveillance platforms, fire and rescue assets, survey equipment, and personal playthings. The list of possible applications grows each month, and their use by governments, large industries, and private individuals has grown exponentially in recent years, with no signs of stopping. Forecasts predict global shipments of consumer drones to hit 29 million by the end of this year, with business-use only drones reaching 2.4 million in two years’ time. 

With the world’s largest civilian drone industry and the second-largest global market for these products, it would appear that China is close to dominating both the production and sale of such devices. A single Chinese company even holds 70% of the world’s market share in drones. Historically, China suffered from a reputation of churning out imitation goods and cheap plastic toys, which did not last beyond the Christmas Holidays, but those days are long since gone. China is now seen as a world leader in innovation, industry, and enterprise. They seem to lead the world in producing drone technology, but are they using them effectively, and if so, what does this mean for other global players who are striving to catch up?

Background: Queen Bee to Kingtec

Small radio-controlled pilotless aircraft were developed by both the Americans and the British during the First World War for use as aerial targets by anti-aircraft gunners. An unmanned version of the famous de Havilland Tiger Moth training biplane, the Queen Bee, was unveiled in 1935 and performed the same purpose for troops before and during the Second World War. Remote-controlled B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, packed with explosives, were used against hardened German V-weapons facilities and U-boat pens under the codename Aphrodite, albeit without much success. The Luftwaffe also employed a fighter and bomber aircraft combination known as Mistel in a similar role. However, the unmanned latter component was released by the pilot of the fighter close to the intended target. The technology was improved in the post-war era, with purpose-built drones being fitted with jet engines, although their overall purpose remained as simple targets. However, there was a realization that unmanned platforms could carry out many of the same missions that piloted aircraft performed: it was just a question of developing drones with enough endurance and payload lifting capabilities.


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The remote controlled “Queen Bee.” (Image: RAF)

The Chinese took their first tentative steps into drone technology in the late 1950s when they adapted examples of the Soviet Antonov An-2 
Colt transport and Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle jet bomber for remote-controlled flight operations. At least one off-course American Ryan BQM-34 Firebee target drone was captured and reverse-engineered as a Chinese copy, the Wu Zhen 5. End-of-life MiG-15bis jet fighters were also converted into Shenyang BA-5 drones for aerial target purposes, much like the fleet of QF-86 Sabre, QF-102 Delta Dagger, and QF-106 Delta Dart target drones used by the United States Air Force from the 1970s to the 1990s.

One of the first drones manufactured in large numbers by the People’s Republic of China was the Nanjing CK-1, effectively a reverse-engineered Lavochkin La-17 unmanned aerial vehicle already operated by the Soviet Air Force. Powered by a copy of a very thirsty Mikulin turbojet, it was used as an air-to-air combat target from the late 1960s, although a variant was also fitted with air sampling equipment for use in Chinese nuclear testing.

By the 1980s, Chinese drone technology was still confined mainly to military applications, although three main strands of development had occurred: Chang Kong target drones (the Lavochkin copies); the Wu Zhen series of high-altitude reconnaissance platforms stemming from the reverse-engineered Firebee; and smaller D4 remote-controlled aircraft. Although these were based on Russian and American designs, it was not long before Chinese designers started to develop indigenous drone technology. Also, the 1980s saw the first of the Cai Hong (Rainbow) series of drones for reconnaissance and surveillance duties, culminating in the CH-901 “loitering mission and expendable” unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). This tube-launched device, built by a division of the China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation (CASC), can carry a warhead and can be deployed from vehicles or “mothership” aircraft en masse, flooding potential defenses with a veritable swarm of targets.


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CH-901 Drone (Image:


One of the many contemporary Chinese drone manufacturers is Kingtec, which is responsible for at least two current designs in the JTT-series, operated as aerial targets or surveillance platforms. These jet-engined devices are unique in that their airframes can be reconfigured to resemble a range of modern military aircraft designs, adding realism to training situations. The company is one of many located in China to have built up a complete industrial chain of drone research, development, production, and testing facilities.

Analysis: Chinese Drones Are Everywhere

Although America and European countries restricted their military-grade drones’ export sales, such self-imposed limits were not followed by the Chinese. In the decade leading up to 2018, the country exported some 163 UCAVs to thirteen countries worldwide.

In the same period, just 13 American MQ-9 Reapers were delivered. By 2019, several Wing Loong II UCAVs, built by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG) and belonging to the United Arab Emirates Air Force, had been deployed to Al Khadim air base in Libya to support the Libyan National Army, a rebel faction fighting against the Tripoli-based General National Assembly. In January 2020, a Wing Loong II drone fired a Blue Arrow 7 missile at a military academy in Tripoli, killing 26 cadets. The UAE had taken delivery of 15 drones and 350 Blue Arrow missiles from China in 2017. Superficially similar in design to the USAF General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, the Chinese drone, Wing Loong II has six hardpoints under its wings, allowing it to carry a combination of rockets, bombs, or air-to-surface missiles such as the Blue Arrow. It can stay aloft for over 24 hours, even when carrying weapons.


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The Wing Loong II (Image: Wikicommons/Mztourist)


Elsewhere in Africa, Nigerian military forces operate Chinese Wing Loong II drones in their struggle against Boko Haram insurgents. The country took delivery of four drones at the end of 2020, with a further four on order. Saudi Arabia had also used this particular type of drone against Houthi militias based in South Yemen, including a successful assassination attempt on the rebel leader Saleh Ali al-Sammad in April 2018, when a Blue Arrow missile was fired at the vehicle he was traveling in. Mauretania has also joined the African club of nations that operate Chinese-built drones, as it purchased an unknown number of CASC CH-4s in 2018. These were acquired for anti-terrorism and border security missions.

Far Eastern security forces are obtaining Chinese drones to monitor their populations in times of civil unrest. Reports coming out of Myanmar at the beginning of April 2021 have highlighted the use of CASC CH-3A UCAVs in aerial surveillance sorties over the country’s capital, Mandalay, during March 2021. Witnesses on the ground stated that the drones had flown low enough over the city to be easily heard, suggesting military attempts at intimidation tactics in addition to monitoring residents. Around a dozen CH-3As were delivered to the Tatmadaw Lay (Myanmar Air Force) in 2015, ostensibly for use against ethnic rebel groups scattered across the country. Reports from the Myanmar states, Chin and Rakhine, in 2020 suggested that civilian casualties had been caused by drone strikes on suspected rebel targets. The drone is capable of carrying YC-200 laser-guided bombs and AR-1 rockets. In addition, the Tatmadaw Lay also operates a small fleet of Imageinfo Sky-02A micro air vehicle surveillance drones, again of Chinese manufacture. The Myanmar military is also believed to be building its own version of the CH-3A under license from China, known locally as the Yellow Cat A2, and the CASC CH-4, which looks identical to the MQ-9 Reaper.

In South America, China helped to overhaul Bolivia’s national security services by introducing drone technology and other surveillance hardware. Under the BOL-110 Integrated System for Citizen Security, launched in August 2019 and paid for using a $105 million Chinese loan, a small fleet of drones augment the monitoring of and controlling crime in public spaces. Currently used in the country’s largest cities, La Paz and El Alto, the introduction of drones and facial recognition software has led opposition groups to suggest that the technology will be increasingly used to harass and control the public. A similar public security system installed in Ecuador, ECU 911, also features Chinese drones and other surveillance equipment.

Even European air forces are not immune to the allure of buying and operating Chinese military drones. In June 2020, the Serbian Air Force took the delivery of six fixed-wing CASC CH-92A drones, optimized for reconnaissance and surveillance missions, and has several more on order. However, these machines can be armed with FT-8C laser-guided missiles capable of striking targets five miles away, and the Serbs have acquired a small number of these weapons. Belgrade had shown interest in the larger Wing Loong II drones but settled for a cheaper option. The transfer of relatively sophisticated UCAV technology from China to Serbia also helped the latter develop their own indigenous Pegaz-011 tactical reconnaissance drone, a project that started in 2010.

American and British plans to create swarms of semi-autonomous military drones may already have been emulated and even surpassed by Chinese efforts. The successful testing of Zhongtian Feilong’s new “airborne swarm system” in March 2021 was announced at the beginning of April. A twin-boom, pusher propeller “mothership,” the vertical take-off and landing platform carries a belly-mounted dispenser capable of carrying an unknown number of smaller unmanned aerial systems. However, nine were reported in the March 2021 test program. Drones such as these could fly a considerable distance before releasing a group of smaller systems, all tasked with different missions, including but not limited to surveillance, intelligence gathering, electronic warfare, and weapons deployment. Several such “motherships” approaching under the radar “horizon” and then “popping up” to release a cloud of loitering munitions could, in theory, overwhelm conventional anti-missile technologies fitted to US Navy or Royal Navy escort vessels, allowing other aircraft or drone systems to attack major carrier assets. Land battlefields would also see manned defenses quickly saturated by such swarming attacks, allowing conventional aircraft to penetrate opposition territory with less risk.



China appears to be taking over the global military market for low-cost yet effective UCAVs. It has a vast market share enabling it to project power and influence across continents. A single company, Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI), controls 76% of the American domestic non-hobby market and a large portion worldwide, leading to fears in some quarters that the technology could be “hacked” in the future on the orders of the Chinese Communist Party. In 2017, the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) temporarily suspended the use of their Chinese-built DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter fleet after cybersecurity concerns were raised. Inspection of hard-to-reach areas of their fleet of C-17A Globemaster transport aircraft was among the duties assigned to the ADF’s Phantoms. The ban was lifted two weeks later. However, the Chinese-built drones were relegated to “unclassified situations” after the ADF had established revised operating procedures. Fears remain as evidence emerged in 2020 to suggest that some DJI application software was vulnerable to malware, allowing potential hackers access to flight control data. In response, DJI stated that there had never been any cases of exploitation of its software.

In terms of its own military hardware, China appears to be catching up with the Americans’ best efforts. When the Sky Hawk stealth drone was unveiled in 2019, observers remarked upon its similarity to the Lockheed-Martin X-44A technology demonstrator that had debuted in 2001. While there seemed to be a considerable gap in the emergence of these two platforms, the same could not be said about the Hongdu GJ-11 Sharp Sword, a low observable UCAV that first flew in 2013 and entered service with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in October 2019. On the surface, the GJ-11 looks to be a slightly smaller version of the USAF’s RQ-170 Sentinel stealth UCAV, but its predicted performance figures are very similar. Sharp Sword is just one of many related drone designs under the Chinese AVIC-601S development program. If the Americans ever believed they had carved out a technological edge with the carrier-borne Northrop-Grumman X-47B UCAV, the Chinese responded with the CASC CH-7, another similar design. It features a “buried” weapons bay capable of carrying and launching an extensive range of missiles, rockets, and smart bombs. Another design, the Tian Ying, which also resembles the X-44, was unveiled in 2018. This UCAV, believed to be a technology demonstrator, was thought by some commentators to be fitted with more robust landing gear, which would allow it to operate from aircraft carriers. The planned Type 003 Chinese aircraft carrier will be equipped with electromagnetic launch systems instead of traditional steam catapults. These are expected to be retrofitted to the Shandong (Type 002), which was launched in 2017 and entered service two years later. These new launch systems can be tailored to match the differing requirements of heavier and lighter aircraft, including carrier-borne drones.

Chinese drones have even penetrated American policing networks. In 2020, under a “disaster relief program” instigated by DJI, around 100 of its platforms were donated to 45 law enforcement and first responder units across 22 states. The drones have been used to monitor public movements and broadcast “stay at home” messages in towns and cities. Putting the obvious civil liberties and privacy issues aside, the possibility of sensitive information being collected by DJI’s “gifts” and passed onto the Chinese government exists in a very real sense, especially given the increasing tension in Sino-American relations. 

Outlook: The Chinese Drone Is Dominating The Battlefield

The Chinese domination of the civilian market poses a possible future security risk and the viability of Western drone companies. Intel, the second-largest supplier to American domestic buyers, has just a 4% market share of drone purchases by non-hobbyists. Even this figure is misleading, as around 98% of these are Shooting Star drones used in shows. This world dominance is not surprising. Western companies cannot compete with the complete supply-chain integration available to Chinese drone manufacturers, along with their products’ user-friendly design, operation, and lower cost. Buy a drone from a shop or via the Internet, and it’s likely to have been manufactured in China.

However, countries shopping for military-grade UCAVs and surveillance drones cannot exactly buy them on eBay and depending on their politics or human rights records, American exports may be prohibited. Therefore, the Chinese are a logical alternative for nations wishing to add a modern, high-tech, and ultimately expendable platform to their order of battle, one which has already been tested in combat and has a reasonable level of reliability. 

Internal security forces from repressive regimes are only too glad to use China’s offers to supply complete urban monitoring systems that utilize drones to watch over rebels and ordinary law-abiding citizens alike. Even America’s law enforcers are not immune to the influx of Chinese-built drones, especially when the latter are being given away for free.

Bans on exporting military-grade drones and UCAVs may suit American and European lawmakers in terms of refusals to aid and abet repression in other countries. Still, these actions push such nations into the arms of authoritarian regimes like China, who have no such qualms about supplying monitoring and weapons-delivering technology. Cost, availability, and ease of use in both the military and civilian spheres have allowed China to steal a march on the West, with its drones providing a desirable proposition for hobbyists, commercial applications, and military procurement agencies worldwide. There seems no current desire or ability to break China’s stranglehold on the world drone market.

Follow and connect with Graeme Rendall on Twitter: @Borders750

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