Report: China developing advanced drone fleet

The U.S. may own the skies now when it comes to drones, but China is fast developing strategic and tactical unmanned aerial vehicles capable of supporting ground, sea and air forces, and also subbing for satellite communications in the event they are taken out.

That’s the report from the Project 2049 Institute, a five-year-old think tank devoted to researching and tracking social, political, military and technological trends in the Asian Pacific.

In current numbers and capabilities, the Chinese fleet – estimated by the institute to be about 280 strong in 2011 – is no more than a quarter of the size of the U.S fleet. Published reports have indicated there are now at least 800 large drones – Predators, Reapers and the high-altitude Global Hawks among them – in operation around the world. That does not even count the smaller drones like the Raven that troops are able to launch by hand.

The Chinese began developing drones in the 1950s with some help from the Soviet Union. The United States was also working on UAVs at the time, primarily for reconnaissance, according to the UAV research history provided by the institute,

Drone aircraft generally lost out to manned platforms and satellites when it came to funding, according to “Air Force UAVs: The Secret History,” published in 2010 by the Mitchell Institute.

Since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. pumped more money and attention into UAVs.

But the Chinese not only are working to beef up the numbers but also the variety, backed up by a military and academic partnership that – not surprisingly – is a great deal closer than those in the West. China’s UAV research and development community has developed more than 50 designs, the institute found, of which the People’s Liberation Army funding what it considers the best.

As in the U.S., the Chinese are greatly interested in drones capable of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, precision strike and electronic warfare missions and data relay – communications.

The UAVs are spread throughout China’s army, navy and air force, though the PLA General Staff maintains its own UAVs for joint operations, according to the institute. China’s Second Artillery Corps – its strategic missile force – also appears to have high-altitude, long endurance UAV assets, while those assigned to army, navy and air force units are for tactical ops and training.

“In a crisis situation, selected UAV-equipped units may be apportioned to a Joint Campaign Command,” the institute says. “UAV data most likely would be fused with space-based ISR and ground-based over the horizon radar surveillance data within a [Joint command].”

There have been numerous Chinese military studies dealing with UAVs as communications relay platforms, according to the institute.

“In particular, Chinese researchers note that UAVs could provide a critical link between land-based command and control facilities and anti-ship missiles engaged in long range over-the-horizon attacks,” the think tank states. “One study also posited that high altitude UAVs equipped with data link payloads could substitute for communications satellites in the event of enemy anti-satellite attacks.”

About the Author

Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is a reporter for He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.
  • Lance

    Well more China paranoia. From what ive read looks like there invested in unmanned spy drones but lack jet powered attack drone we have for now.

    • Davis

      Key word is “for now”. China has been able to catch up with the US in terms of military capabilities and hardware (not to be confused with tactics and experience) faster than many military leaders and analyst thought possible. We may be the country with the most advanced and powerful drones but we shouldn’t take that for granted and let our guard down and let them catch up. Our military and IC should definitely take notice of China’s growing drone fleet and prepare because we’ve all seen the damage drones are capable of in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

      Also when dealing with China, “paranoia” isn’t the word you should use, “vigilance” is better.

      • oblat

        They are already two generations ahead of us in strategy and tactics which is why we have never won a war or proxy war against them even when they were agrarian.

        The great irony is that China has the big advantage that it doesn’t have a socialist defense sector like we do. We can expect that as the exponential growth continues they will appear suddenly with new technologies of which we have no counter and no hope of countering.

        • greg

          Personally I think China over-extended themselves too fast. They did build up quickly, but now they have ghost cities that people can’t afford to live in. They are in a paradox right now. They are going to have more old people then they can support at some point.

          Also I don’t think China has been very innovative. They are great copiers right now, but they don’t seem to design much. I again personally think this has to do with their culture. I don’t think we will ever see a great many ideas come out of china unless the people are free.

          With all that said I am still worried about all the espionage. It also seems like a proxy war is heating up in Korea again.

          • Drone

            If you had to look a bit further back, the Chinese were amongst the greatest innovators in history:

            The West might be enjoying the upper hand at the moment but this is no time for complacency.

        • Duke

          “They are already two generations ahead of us in strategy and tactics”

          How do you figure?

        • IronV

          You don’t know your present or your history. The only major modern campaign where we’ve ever faced them was Korea. Despite their overwhelming numbers, we pushed them back across the 38th parallel and could have kept going. Without nukes…

        • gaylord_gaylordson


    • Jeff

      “From what ive read looks like there invested in unmanned spy drones but lack jet powered attack drone we have for now.”

      Lance, where did you get this info? Did you learn it from your uncle’s neighbor who heard it from a friend’s cousin who got it from her ex who gathered it from his drinking buddy’s nephew who got it from his sister’s co-worker who gleaned it from her dad’s barber who was tipped off by his shrink’s husband who learned it from an online comment, which was posted by you? Or are you just trying to bullshit us?

    • K Hudgens
      • shawn1999

        Shaped correctly, wood will still fly. And its much cheaper than metal, making it easier to replace, not to mention it the fact that its a poor conductor, so it won’t be reflecting radio signals or heat very well….easily replaced (just have to reproduce the interior circuitry for the package its carrying….) if you are right, sounds like they’ve just bypassed all our detection equipment.

  • Ron

    When China reach the moon then I’ll take notice about their technological capabilities, till then I would’nt worry about it.

  • orly?

    But but but Europe’s the threat right?

    We’ll never have to worry about a Pacific war correct?

  • LeeRetArmy

    Part of the reason we have never won a war against them is we have never fought them without restraint. In Korea they used virtually no tactics it was mass and charge which if we would have been allowed by the politicians to stem the flow from China we would not have the problems with NK that we have today. Not quite the same with Vietnam but very close there was more Russian influence in that war than Chinese. The problem I am most concerned with in regards to China is technology. We are WAY to reliant on the Chinese for parts which if not properly inspected or tested could be a huge problem a small RF chip with a simple executable i.e shut down or simply burn out a circuit and any piece of equipment with that board is done. This is very simple to do. We have always seemed to play the short game where China has played the long. A very close watch needs to be kept on the Dragon.

  • Che chang

    I thaught IS supplies heron drones to CH?

  • LtKitty

    Ugh, white hub caps are like sooo last century.

    • LtKitty

      On closer inspection it looks like white is on the tire, not the hub cap. Woops.

      • majr0d

        Whitewalls that take up most of the side of a tire are called “snowballs” and are very 1950’s which was the last century.

    • Jeff M

      China needs to develop an advanced truck fleet, heh.

    • PrometheusGoneWild

      I don’t think we can compete with China’s white wall technology!!!

  • aaothead

    If we don’t stop our electronic leaks of course they can catch up with us, they just steal it. Low start up costs that way.

  • Kole

    I’m glad the Navy’s DRFM jammers on EA-18Gs still kick ass.

  • Jacob

    Is there a reason why drones seem to always be painted white?

    • so they can be seen better in parades and airshows…those that are actively deployed are normally painted gray

  • stephn russell

    If have ship acess, can do overflights over Hawaii or VA alone
    Scary if have updated spy tech for Live Feed to Hqs.

  • oblat

    You have to love the “we only lost because we chose to” excuse. When did our military become so lame ?

  • blight_

    “But the Chinese not only are working to beef up the numbers but also the variety, backed up by a military and academic partnership that – not surprisingly – is a great deal closer than those in the West. China’s UAV research and development community has developed more than 50 designs, the institute found, of which the People’s Liberation Army funding what it considers the best.”

    Bear in mind this is the research structure used to fund basic research in the US. Pour money into NIH and earmark extramural research at academic institutions. It’s been a good way to push discovery along.

    One can only hope their defense establishment takes a page from the free market and overpromises and under-delivers at a premium.

  • Obama

    The age of America is ending

  • Phono

    I guess the truck is still more expensive and complex than the drone it carries … but china is developing fast and will pose a serious competitor in the future.
    Especially when it comes to drones the field is (in comperassant) plainly levelled. Closing up to the US may not be as difficult as it seems – especially if I remember the chart that has been shown along with the article here about the chinese x37b

  • Anthony

    China is a country that prefers men than women.It has been reported that when girls are born they are drowned or killed in some way.Not only is their population growing older but without women they can not reproduce. Men can not reproduce with each other so what happens when there are no women to produce more Chinese? What kind of life is that?

    • they’ve got plenty of people to fill their military…and when the time is right, they will invade their neighbors and take the women they want to replenish

      • Anthony

        After being without women for a while they may lose interest in them and then become the first all homosexual country in the world.Then what???And as for invading other countries and taking their people,I doubt it.Their population now is over 1 billion and they can’t feed all of them

  • Marcellus Hambrick
  • Marcellus Hambrick
  • Tata

    Anthony u r really not up to date, the last 10 years, especially nowdays girls are more preferred than boys in China. Mainly due to huge pressure to have boys as parent need to buy house to their son otherwise no parent will allow their daughter to one not owning house. Its china culture thing, the first thing a girl would ask to a man before they go into relationship or marriage.


    A Yellow Sea encounter is not all that unrealistic, Japan Defense and the PRC”s newly untried weapons are in direct opposition for major oil deposits and shipping lanes. The Uncredentialed is making his way to Israel, red flags fly and I suspect he needs excuses for tightening his agenda here at home. His job is in jeopardy and he may be creating a insurance policy with our allies to put a stop to his ouster…America Beware.

  • Tata

    Anthony, if ur last comment is to reply my comment then i want to tell you that i’m n expat working n living in China for the last6 years. Besides my comment is just an information for share but ur reply really surprise me n show how ‘educated’ you are!

    • Anthony

      Since you are an “expat” working and living in China stay there.You deserve what ever you get from there, but it’s not my choice of living under communism where the government runs your every day life and you have no say so!!!!!!

  • Tata
  • How I read it: China copying other country’s drones

  • OTTO

    Its a copy of yours [USA] anyway, they stole the plans years ago.
    Message to USA make *fake* plans with unit issues so that they will copy it faults and all :-)

  • asdasdasd

    China= Copy