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The Russian and Chinese Drone Programs

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Unmanned aerial vehicles have become the signature of American offensive military operations. While far from perfect, drones are now critical to achieving US goals in an effective and efficient manner.  But how do the nations considered the United States’ closest “near peers,” Russian and China, compare in this critical capability? While both countries are making strides in developing their own combat drones, their technology is significantly behind and it will take years or likely decades for them to reach the stage the United States is at now. That reality is not lost on the Russian and Chinese military-industrial complexes, which have both taken a practical and realistic approach to drone research and development.

Russia does not currently possess strike drones, though the Russian Defense Ministry stated in April that they are in the process of acquiring combat drones and have finalized their requirements. According to the Russian Air Force Commander Alexander Zelin, the drones are slated to enter service in 2020 and prototypes will be ready by 2016. Though few details have been released, all signs seem to indicate the Russian combat drone will be comparable to the American MQ-9 Reaper, with a greater weight and hence payload than the MQ-1 predator. Other sources, however, dispute these predictions. Industry sources have suggested that the first domestically produced combat drone will be ready next year but would be closer in size and capabilities to the MQ-1 Predator.  Russia also intends to build unmanned, jet-powered long-range bombers to replace their aging fleet of Tupolevs, but, according to the Russian long-range aviation commander Lt. Gen. Anatoly Zhikharev, these drones will not be ready until 2040, 20 years after the U.S. plans to field similar aircraft. In light of this as well as the failures of Russia’s past attempts at combat drones such as the MiG “Scat” or “Manta Ray”, an RQ-170 Sentinel clone, which was cancelled over difficulty finding a sufficiently light yet powerful domestic engine, it’s likely that the Russian military-industrial complex will have difficulty delivering their strike drone on deadline if at all.

Still, for all of its lofty yet unfulfilled promises, the Russian drone program remains pragmatic. For now, Russia gets its modern drone fleet from Israel, having bought two Bird Eye-400, eight I-View Mk150, and two Searcher Mk.2 UAVs at a total price of  $53 million. Though Russia plans to spend about $13 billion on its own drone program over the next 8 years, their indigenous drones should be much cheaper to produce. In addition, developing UAVs as well as supporting aviation, communications, and information technology is seen as important for keeping the Russian military from falling farther behind the United States and dealing with future conflict where it may have a greater need for drones.  Similarly, Russia also recently announced a secretive program to develop underwater drones to keep up with the U.S. Navy.

China’s drone program is also highly practical. Due to China’s maritime interests, most of their drones programs focus on supporting their navy and raising their situational awareness at sea. After a trial program last year, officials announced  last month that China will deploy drones along the coastline to undertake remote-sensing marine surveillance. To that end, China is constructing 11 UAV bases run by provincial maritime authorities. Late last year, a Chinese university also developed a maritime surveillance helicopter to add to numerous prototypes of unmanned helicopters that have appeared at air shows. Though fully operational, the Chinese models are currently far inferior to their Western counterparts. It is believed, however, that the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force spotted one of these vehicles in the East China Sea back in April. China also intends to use  maritime surveillance drones launched from ships to find submarines with genetic algorithms that evolve to grow more efficient. All of these maritime drone programs, especially the sub hunting UAVs, are meant to challenge American power projection in the Pacific.

The Chinese drone program has been characterized by efficiency. Their newest mine-sweeping drones, for example, are re-purposed personal submarines launched from converted Type 529 patrol craft and controlled by 818 Kunshan minesweeping ships. And, rather than develop their drones from scratch, China has historically stolen American designs or reverse-engineered other UAVs for their own fleet. China has recently stepped up cyber attacks on American defense contractors and federal agencies to learn more about U.S. UAV strategy and development.

Neither China nor Russia can approach American capabilities in remotely piloted vehicles and at this stage are unlikely to catch up any time soon. Both nation’s drone programs, however, take that into account with much more realistic goals. While they hope to challenge American technological dominance, the primary goal seems to be to cut costs on foreign drones and perhaps sell their own drones abroad, to stay ahead of neighboring nations, and to continue advancing their military R&D. Both nations, however, also take great pride from their programs, especially as UAVs have become such a high-profile weapon. The Russians, for example, often talk about developing drones better than their American or Israeli counterparts despite those drones likely being obsolete by the time the domestic equivalents become operational. Still, with national pride at stake, it’s likely that drone programs will continue to be an R&D priority for both countries.

Alex Olesker

Alex Olesker

Alex Olesker is a Technology Research Analyst at Crucial Point LLC that specializes in science, technology, and security. He has experience working with law enforcement, private intelligence, multi-national corporations, and academia, and has written and lectured on terrorism, international security, infrastructure protection, investigations, intelligence, policing, cybersecurity, and analytics. Alex graduated from Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.