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Steal The Best Hardware, Not The Best Ideas
by James Dunnigan
October 27, 2009

Only five years ago, it was believed that Chinese UAV designs were a decade or more behind the West. But recent (unofficial) photos have shown China testing local designs that look like clones of the Israeli Heron and the U.S. Predator. There are also persistent rumors that China is also building a clone of the American Global Hawk. Currently, China considers all UAVs to be "strategic assets", and their existence, and development, are kept top secret.

But there are some less advanced UAVs in use by army combat units. The most common of these is the ASN-105, a 374 pound aircraft with a payload if 88 pounds. Each UAV unit has six of these, and half a dozen trucks to carry the aircraft, radio control equipment and even a film processing lab. The film lab is apparently gone, in most ASN-105, with digital cameras replacing them.

The Chinese army is still a low budget operation, and old equipment is kept in service a lot longer than in the West. Even when older gear, like UAVs, are retired from military service, they are usually handed over to civilian or paramilitary organizations. Older UAVs are being used for border patrol and land survey (checking on crops and infrastructure.) For the moment, the Chinese treat UAVs like pilotless reconnaissance aircraft. But senior officers are aware of Israeli and American troops using them in real time, with infantry and tank crews getting overhead real time video from UAVs above. It will be a while before the Chinese can afford that.

The army is in big trouble, as the government has ordered a lot more of the military budget to be shifted from the army to the air force and navy. Despite the success of the U.S., and other Western armies, with UAVs in the combat zone, this technology is not a high priority item to Chinese army leadership.

While the Chinese are spending heavily on strategic UAVs, there does not appear to be much new available for smaller units (divisions, brigades, battalions and so on). While the U.S. provides UAV capability to infantry companies and platoons, China seems to be dedicating most of their UAV effort on longer range, and endurance, aircraft. They got started in this direction, when they worked closely with Israeli companies in the 1990s. The U.S. pressured Israel to stop that, but the Chinese have been caught buying, or stealing, Israeli UAV technology regularly in the last decade.

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