Only several countries were able to boast the possession of “unmanned” aerial vehicles (UCAVs) or armed drones between 2000 and 2004, but that number has risen steadily since. Today, approximately 30 countries are known to have operational armed drones, the proliferation of which has been decidedly facilitated by China’s eagerness to sell to essentially any state that is willing to buy them.
Three years ago, the Middle East proved to be a lucrative market for autonomous weapons systems and armed drones for Chinese military contractors. In this regard, nothing has changed. At the time, the Chang Hong-3 (CH-3) and longer CH-4 “Rainbow” UCAVs, China’s less-expensive but relatively lower-quality combat drones as compared to its MQ-9 Reaper UCAV knock-off, were particularly attractive products. Additionally, the Wing Loong I proved ideal for MENA states given the persistence of local rebel force activity and government desire for swift and effective response.
This initial thrust in drone sales was followed by the establishment of Chinese-operated factories in the Middle East and other regions, including South East Asia. Chinese companies, notably Ziyan, have since turned to exporting its new Blowfish series autonomous armed helicopter (vertical take-off and landing, VTOL) drone to states across the MENA region. Primarily sold as instruments of states’ security policies, the autonomous weapons systems have been the primary instruments of attacks in the MENA and near-MENA regions: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, UAE, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zambia, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan, among others.
In addition to its existing arsenal of drones containing the easy-to-build CH-3 and CH-4, and the popular Wing Loong I and Wing Loong II (and variants) drones, China tested its first stealth drone, named the Li-Jian (“Sharp Sword”) in late 2013. China simultaneously continues to extend its systems capabilities, adding to the attractiveness of its armed drone products sold to other countries. Lighter, cheaper, and less-reliable than its United States (US) “equivalents,” China’s integrated multi-role, multi-performance drones have been successful in assuming a large share of the global drone market. This is due in part to their attractive price tag as well as their ability to fill an immediate need and desire on the part of purchasing states that face immediate security challenges. For instance, not only are these drones inexpensive to acquire and operate, they perform well for state needs, undertaking and fulfilling intelligence gathering on the battlefield, tracking and surveillance, border patrol, and counter-narco-criminal activity and counter-terrorism (Wing Loong I – Chengdu Pterodactyl suits the surveillance role well), and engagements with small and dexterous targets in a variety of battle environments.
US restrictions on the sale of its MQ-9 Reaper UCAV, as a result of the convention arms transfers (CAT) policy, supports China’s expanding sales. Whereas the former has voiced concern over UCAV sales for fear of how they will be employed, China (Israel equally less self-restrained) has demonstrated markedly shallow reserve in branding their weapons systems as the ideal instruments to be used for domestic security purpose, whether that means within state operations or asymmetric conflict beyond state borders. Saudi Arabia has put their Chinese-made weapons to use against rebel forces in Yemen with its well-known and successful strike against Houthi rebel leader, Saleh Ali al-Sammand, in April 2018.
The UAE’s Wing Loong II (between six and eight) drones have taken flight in Libya from airbases near Tripoli in support of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its partners. Their utility was demonstratively effective, though not pivotal, in their support of the LNA against, in particular, forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar. Egypt has and continues to employ drones acquired from China against insurgents through an unstable Sinai. Part of Egypt’s Task Force 777, Egyptian-owned and operated Wing Loong UCAVs engaged militants of Wilayat Sinai (formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, ABM) who declared allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, while the Egyptian Air Force flew its Wing Loong drones against militants in El Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zuweid, located in the northern Sinai. Further reconnaissance missions around the Gaza-Sinai border have been supported by China-made UCAVs. Attacks executed using the Chengdu Wing Loong UCAV employ laser-guided missiles known as the Blue Arrow 7 (Lan Jian-7).
Its relatively short but successful track record has positioned China positively for continued marketing and future sales of its current UCAVs and those currently being developed. Able to stay aloft for hours and deliver volleys of high-impact ordnance, China’s next generation of UCAVs (China’s Wing Loong variants) that are actually lighter in cost are likely to capture the attention of states able and willing to spend more on autonomous weapons systems that they are unlikely to develop on their own. A noteworthy element of attraction in China’s UCAV availability is their capacity to almost instantly satisfy a niche area of a state’s military needs. In the absence of the China-drone option, a many of these states would require decades to develop, successfully test, and field, their own domestic brand autonomous weapons systems.
China’s relatively minimal and turn-key military instruments also enable states with limited budgets and military resources to skirt past the manufacturing or procurement of costly military jet fighter-bombers for which extensive pilot-training and preparation are requisite components if they are to play any role in state security at all. States are unlikely to apply their Chinese-made drones to state-on-state conflict or war but that is not what China expects. Given the desire and readiness of MENA states to engage in targeted lethal strikes, China has been involved in targeted marketing, exhibiting its armed drones as the ideal instruments to fulfill this specific task among many.
There is little, if any, evidence or data to suggest that the sale of China-developed artificial intelligence-augmented drones to the MENA states and elsewhere abroad will decline in the near future or over the long term. The implications of introducing advanced autonomous weapons and weapons systems into politically volatile and conflict-prone states and regions has already begun to occupy critical positions within the realm of ethics, the changing character or warfare, and human rights.