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Study Examines China’s Expansive UAV Fleet

Mar. 11, 2013 - 02:10PM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
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TAIPEI — The Project 2049 Institute released a detailed study on China’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs on March 11.

The 29-page report, “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Project: Organizational Capacities and Operational Capabilities,” by Ian Easton and L.C. Russell Hsiao, explores the organizations and individuals responsible for developing UAV-related policies and mission requirements. Defense News was given a sneak peek prior to release.

Read the full report

The study also examines primary military-industrial organizations responsible for the design, research and development, and production of UAVs; what UAV units are operational; and how UAV capabilities will evolve.

According to the report, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fields one of the world’s most expansive UAV fleets. The report estimates there were more than 280 UAVs in service as of mid-2011. This number will increase significantly as more UAV research-and-development centers complete comprehensive product testing and move into mass production.

A preliminary survey of probable units indicates that UAVs are spread across every service branch of the PLA. While unconfirmed, the report’s authors conclude that the General Staff Department and the Second Artillery Corps, responsible for strategic and tactical missiles, are in command of high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs, while the PLA Air Force, Navy and ground forces oversee UAV units that focus on tactical and training missions.

“UAV systems may emerge as the critical enabler for PLA long-range, precision strike missions within a 3,000-kilometer radius of Chinese shores,” the report states. “Emphasis on reducing the radar cross-section of new UAV designs indicate[s] an intent to survive in contested or denied airspace.”

Particularly worrisome for the U.S. Navy are numerous authoritative Chinese studies that indicate a strong focus on developing UAVs for locating, tracking and targeting U.S. aircraft carriers in support of long-range anti-ship cruise and ballistic missile strikes.

Selected Second Artillery units are equipped with UAVs that could provide direct targeting support for conventional ballistic and land-attack cruise missile operations. Unmanned aircraft may be a critical enabler for cueing, target acquisition and battle damage assessment missions in support of operations by anti-ship ballistic missiles, such as the Dong Feng 21D according to the report.

Design concepts discussed for electronic warfare missions include UAVs for jamming satellites, airborne early warning plane communications and radar systems, and ship-based early warning, communications, and air and missile defense systems. PLA technical studies have discussed operational concepts whereby electronic warfare UAVs are deployed in tandem with unmanned precision strike platforms.

“In the short term, the PLA’s UAVs are set to play a key role in monitoring China’s disputed maritime and land boundary claims,” the document states. “This could put other claimants at a distinct disadvantage, especially if they lack their own sophisticated aerial reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities to match the Chinese in terms of maritime domain awareness.”

Looking farther ahead, the report indicates that Chinese UAVs will support the expansion of the PLA’s operational envelope, pushing its reconnaissance strike complex farther into the Western Pacific.

“A robust network of ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] mission-capable UAVs, combined with satellites and ‘tattletale’ ships, will make it increasingly likely that the PLA will be able to locate adversary fleets at greater distances, and, once discovered, track them continuously.”

This should be of particular concern to the U.S. Navy because, according to several military-technical materials reviewed for the study, PLA operational planners envision attacking U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups with swarms of multimission UAVs in the event of conflict.

“These attacks would likely open with initial waves of decoy drones simulating offensive air raids,” the report states. “Such raids would be intended to trick U.S. pilots and picket ship defenders into exhausting long-range air-to-air and ship-to-air missile stocks. Formations of decoy drones would then be followed with groups of electronic warfare UAVs, including both UAVs used for jamming communications and radar systems, and anti-radiation UAVs for attacking early-warning radar platforms kinetically.”

At the same time, the report indicates that other armed combat UAVs would act as anti-ship missile delivery platforms and/or seek to fly themselves into defenders like remotely piloted cruise-missile attackers. Still other UAVs would serve as communications relay links to guide land-based anti-ship missiles, and anti-ship ballistic missiles, to their targets.

“The ultimate goal of combined UAV and missile campaigns would be to penetrate otherwise robust defense networks through tightly coordinated operations planned to optimize the probability of overwhelming targets,” the report states.

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