Chinese commercial drones bring new uncertainties to old conflicts

The growing number of drones is challenging the strategic, security and legal status quo in the Middle East.
Sunday 22/07/2018
A Chinese commercial drone is seen during a news conference in Shanghai, last May. (Reuters)
Monopolistic hold. A Chinese commercial drone is seen during a news conference in Shanghai, last May. (Reuters)

The United States and its allies appear to have taken the venerable expression “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight” very seriously. Last year, the Patriot air defence system was used by Saudi forces in Yemen to shoot down a re-engineered Houthi aerial drone but using a sledgehammer to swat a fly was hardly efficient: It cost $3.4 million for one Patriot missile to shoot down a drone worth a few hundred dollars.

Considering this unsustainable financial imbalance, counterterrorism structures are scrambling to find a cost-efficient solution to combat remote-controlled threats. Not only do re-engineered commercial drones pose a new threat, the use of the data acquired by them could generate serious security breaches.

Following the boom in commercial aerial drones for amateur photography and filming, Chinese companies such as DJI have gained a near monopolistic hold on the drone market.

Since 1991, drones have become increasingly recognised as a game changer on the battlefield as well as in the struggle against terrorism. The table, however, has turned. The upper hand once held by national armies has been reversed in favour of insurgents.

Both Hezbollah and the Islamic State (ISIS) have taken advantage of asymmetric drone warfare. Commercial drones have been reconfigured as flying bombs and used for surveillance. ISIS used professional photographic aerial drones for propaganda purposes by filming black-clad caliphate fighters in action.

Many are familiar with the costly, highly efficient unmanned US Predator and Reaper drones that cost $4 million-$16 million per unit but the narrative is changing. The ability to weaponise inexpensive commercial drones is gaining momentum.

Most important, the efficiency of the commercial drones versus military defensive capabilities poses a disadvantage for the defender. The new cycle in remote-controlled warfare is shifting from military-grade drones in favour of relatively cheap, off-the-shelf hobby toys that can be weaponised for pennies on the dollar.

While the Chinese military industrial complex races to bridge the technological gap with its US and Israeli counterparts, the civilian sector is at the forefront of commercial drone production. DJI is the leader in aerial drone photography and companies such as Walkera are producing high-grade, low-cost racing drones that can be controlled with first-person view goggles. Industry analysts forecast that by 2020 China will export more than 5.5 million drones, compared to just a few hundred thousand in 2015.

Footage released at the end of 2015 by the Iraqi armed forces showed a Chinese-built armed drone Caihong CH-4 during an attack on the ISIS stronghold of Ramadi. Western experts dismissed the Caihong 4 as a cheap knock-off of the US Reaper. Nonetheless, it represents the first confirmed kill by a Chinese-made drone.

In addition, a video released by the Nigerian Army documents an attack by its Chinese-made drone on a Boko Haram munitions storage facility. Previous models, such as the Caihong 3, have been sold to Pakistan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The main selling point of Chinese drones is their affordability.

Compared to US firms, Chinese drone manufacturers face fewer and weaker export restrictions. While China has officially stated its opposition to using drones for targeted killings, countries that acquire Chinese drones may not share that concern. Plans announced by the Chinese to manufacture the CH-4 in Saudi Arabia will inevitably increase the number of Chinese-made armed drones in the Middle East.

Chinese drone sales in the Middle East should be seen in a broader political-military context. Increased drone sales imply better economic deals as well as an expanded diplomatic toolkit that is being used to build new security relationships.

At the same time, however, Beijing has started to closely scrutinise the sale of high-grade commercial drones in the region. In August 2015, Chinese custom authorities promulgated a new regulation restricting the export of high-grade commercial drones that can fly continuously for more than one hour and in adverse weather conditions.

Despite this, most commercial drones are available in the open market. Terrorist acquisition is not easily traceable as the spending patterns of drone racers, amateur enthusiasts and aerial photography enthusiasts are not easily differentiated from those of criminals or terrorists. Chinese counterterrorism analysts say several thousand Chinese-made commercial aerial drones are deployed in Syria. These drones can be tracked via their unique serial number linked with their GPS/BeiDou navigation system.

The growing number of drones is challenging the strategic, security and legal status quo in the Middle East and presents an array of problems that require urgent solutions. While the line between man and machine interface is progressively blurred, the next generation of drones controlled by artificial intelligence will further the moral and ethical challenges.

17