China: A rising drone weapons dealer to the world

The global market for military drones should hit $10 billion by the mid-2020s.

When nine members of a Shiite militia battling the Islamic State in Northern Iraq were mistakenly killed by an Iraqi errant drone strike in January, the world was surprised the Iraqi military operated drones at all — much less machines capable of striking targets on the ground.

What was even more disconcerting was the fact that the Iraqi drones were made in China, a country filling a void created by the U.S. that's rapidly becoming a multi-billion dollar global market.

The world's largest economy has agreed to export its much publicized armed-drone technology to only two allies, the United Kingdom and Italy — the latter only late last year. It's even rebuffed Jordan's requests for U.S. military drones to defend against ISIS on its border. Discerning for reasons both strategic and regulatory, the U.S. has held its military drone technology close, and its armed-drone technology closer still.

A China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) CH-4 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) stands on display during the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, China
Brent Lewin | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) CH-4 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) stands on display during the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, China

Countries seeking armed drones capable of remotely striking targets on the ground are instead turning to China, whose Caihong family of unmanned aircraft — specifically, the Caihong-3 and Caihong-4, or CH-3 and CH-4 — are turning up in arsenals across the globe.

Along with Iraq, several Middle Eastern states have purchased China's weaponized drone technology. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have all reportedly imported armed drones from China, as have Nigeria and, some suspect, Somalia (the Somali army admits to having purchased armed drones, though it won't disclose the seller). Iraq and Pakistan have used them in combat, launching strikes at militants within their own borders.

The list of states that now possess weapons-capable Chinese drones likely reaches beyond those enumerated above. Unhindered by the same international agreements as the United States or the same concerns about armed-drone proliferation, China has made a concerted push into the international arms market, offering weaponized drones that are easier to get and far less expensive than U.S. drone technologies. According to some analyst estimates, cash-strapped militaries can purchase an armed Chinese drone for just $1 million — roughly a quarter of the asking price of comparable U.S. technology.

As a result, states with just a few million dollars to spend can get their hands on weaponized drones from China without jumping through the myriad hoops of the U.S. arms export process. Increasingly, they are doing exactly that.

"It's clear that China is not bound by the same set of international standards — they don't have end-user agreements the way the U.S. does with its drone sales." -Sarah Kreps, associate professor, Cornell University's Department of Government

Drones, like the CH-3 and CH-4, are widely considered to be less capable and reliable than U.S.-made drones, like the iconic MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.

But although they lack the range and capability of U.S. drones, for most countries drones like the CH-3 and CH-4 fall into the category of "good enough," experts say. While specifications for the aircraft are hard to come by, the smaller CH-3 can reportedly carry at least 130 pounds of sensors or weapons, including at least one AR-1 laser-guided missile — the rough Chinese equivalent of the AGM-114 Hell Fire missile carried by U.S. drones.

The larger, CH-4 is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with drones the U.S. military has operated since the mid-1990s. Visually, it closely resembles the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper — so much so that experts believe it was engineered using information stolen from U.S. defense contractors, said Peter W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

"The CH-4 is the more interesting one," said Singer. "It doesn't look exactly like [the Reaper] because that's the only way to build this kind of system. It's not a coincidence, when you look at the amount of intellectual property theft that's going on."

As such, the CH-4 likely shares some other characteristics of with U.S. Predator-class drones as well, Singer says, including a much greater payload than the CH-3 (more like 500 pounds) and a greater range (the Air Force lists the Predator's range at 770 miles).

While pricing information is a closely held secret, analysts widely believe that militaries can acquire some Chinese drone systems for as little as a quarter of what their U.S.-built counterparts cost (a Predator system retails for about $4 million according to U.S. Air Force budget documents). That makes Chinese drones particularly alluring for countries that don't have massive military budgets but desire the symbolic power that drones impart.

"There's a certain PR advantage to having these kinds of drones," said Sarah Kreps, an associate professor in Cornell University's Department of Government and expert on international security and technology proliferation. "I think that you can claim some cachet even if these things aren't fifth generation fighters, because there just aren't that many countries that have this. Even if they're not transformative in serious material ways, just having them can send a signal."

Tough U.S. export regulations

But for the most part, China's emergence as weaponized drone dealer to the world is a result of U.S. restrictions on the export of its own drone technology. Aside from tight controls on military exports imposed by the State and Commerce departments, the U.S. is signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Established among several countries in the late 1980s to curb the proliferation of missile technology as the Cold War came to a close, MTCR regulations require that signatory states apply a "strong presumption of denial" to exports of unmanned vehicles capable of carrying a 1,100-pound payload more than 185 miles.

In other words, unless the exporting state can provide compelling reasons to export such systems to another country, its default response should be to deny such sales. That's put most countries — even U.S. allies — on the wrong side of MTCR export regulations, even though the agreement is aimed at technologies like warhead-delivering cruise missiles rather than drones.

That's given China — which is not a signatory to the MTCR — a pronounced edge in both global armed-drone sales and in the foreign policy arena, where arms deals are often used to reward allies or telegraph displeasure to foreign governments. "We use arms sales as a tool in trying to shape other nations' behavior," Singer says. "And right now we have less options, because other nations now have more options."

With the global market for military drones headed toward $10 billion annually by the mid-2020s, the economic implications are very real as well. In November, the U.S. took limited measures to lower the high regulatory bar for military drone technology exports. Since then, only Italy has secured a commitment from the U.S. government to help it arm its Reaper drones. Meanwhile, armed Chinese drones continue to emerge in parts of the world where they haven't been seen previously.

"It's clear that China is not bound by the same set of international standards — they don't have end-user agreements the way the U.S. does with its drone sales, so it looks much more like an arms bazaar when China is selling these things," Kreps said. "That will very much affect the international market, and it makes you think the U.S. needs to either be part of that game or try to co-opt China into being a little more discriminate."

— By Clay Dillow, special to CNBC.com