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The global proliferation of Chinese drones

In November of every other year, aviation experts descend on the Chinese city of Zhuhai for a rare look at the future of China’s air power. Over the last ten years, the International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition has charted the progress of China’s drone fleet from concept art to functioning models. Now, as the country’s investment in drone technology helps it catch up to the competition, the technology on display at Zhuhai next week could pose another challenge for the global arms control effort.

The Wing Long UAV, Zhuhai International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, 2012.

Chinese companies have boasted about muscling into the international drone market, and they appear to be making headway. In May, it was revealed that Saudi Arabia purchased an unknown number of Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, a rough equivalent to the US-made Predator. This followed earlier reports of Chinese collaboration with the Algerian military, and suspicion that Uzbekistan, the UAE and Pakistan are operating Chinese drones. And in an August joint military exercise, China conducted a live-fire demonstration of drone strikes for its partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

All this comes at a time when American experts are worried about their diminishing lead in unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV) technology.

Several years after the Predator boom, the US military has scaled back its drone acquisition, to the point where it struggled to cobble together enough vehicles for surveillance of the Islamic State while the fighting season in Afghanistan was also getting underway. The only known future combat drone is being developed by the US Navy, and after being watered down to save on cost it is now the subject of review. In the meantime, with American export licenses for armed drones limited to the UK, there …read more

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