Inside the Secret World of Chinese Drones
PLA theorists see unmanned operations (无人作战) as integral elements of future warfare. For instance, in a January 2016 article, Xiao Tianliang, editor of the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University’ 2015 edition of The Science of Military Strategy, alluded to “unmanned systems autonomous operations” (无人系统独立作战) and “unmanned systems and manned systems joint operations” (无人系统与有人系统联合作战) as likely to have a “huge impact” on traditional operational models (PLA Daily, January 5). As such, China’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and in particular, the organizations, as well as educational and training programs, established to support these systems are worthy of attention.
The PLA’s “Golden Launcher” of Military UAVs
When Xi Jinping met the PLA’s delegation to the National People’s Congress in March 2016, one of the military personnel who received particular notice was Master Sergeant Class One (一级军士长) Ju Xiaocheng (巨孝成), the director of a UAV launch site subordinate to the Army Artillery Academy (炮兵学院无人机发射站站长), which was renamed the Army Officer Academy (陆军军官学院) in 2011, in Hefei, Anhui Province (Baike, [Accessed May 7]). Based on his record of a 100 percent success rate in UAV launches, Ju has been praised as the PLA’s “golden launcher” of military-use UAVs (军用无人机“金牌发射手”) (China Military Online, March 14; China Military Online, March 15).
At the time, Xi declared to Ju, “UAVs are important operational forces for the modern battlefield. You must carry out your duties well and cultivate qualified personnel” (China Military Online, March 14). The career trajectory of this UAV team’s technician (无人机队技师), who has personally trained the majority (as of 2009, approximately 80 percent) of the entire PLA’s UAV specialty cadre (无人机专业干部), offers an interesting illustration of the process through which the PLA has developed these personnel thus far (Xinhua, May 26, 2009; PLA Daily, April 4).
Understanding the Human and Organizational Component
This story originally appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief
Although the media and analysts have focused primarily on the technical aspects of the PLA’s various UAVs, there has been less extensive analysis of the human and organizational dimensions thus far. Therefore, this initial attempt to assess the education and training for the PLA’s UAV operators and maintainers, as well as how UAVs are organized within the order of battle, seeks to contribute to analysis of the PLA’s actual operational capability with these systems. While the information available is limited, it is notable that the PLA appears to have progressed substantively in its institutionalization of education and training programs, as well as a career track for UAV officer and enlisted operators. Thus far, UAVs seem to have been deployed across all four services of the PLA at multiple levels and are also likely assigned to units under the Joint Staff Department (former General Staff Department) and, perhaps (though not confirmed), the newly-created Strategic Support Force. Despite continued challenges, the PLA remains focused on enhancing its UAV forces’ operational capabilities, while engaging in more sophisticated training exercises with unmanned systems.
The PLA’s History with UAVs
A review of the PLA’s history with UAVs is helpful to contextualize its recent advances. After the PLA acquired its first unmanned systems from the USSR (Lavochkin 拉-17, La-17) UAV, the PLA Air Force decided to develop its own indigenous unmanned systems after the withdrawal of Soviet aid (China Youth Daily, January 23, 2015). This resulted in the development of the PLA’s first supposedly indigenous UAV, the ChangKong-1 (“Vast Sky,”长空一号, CK-1) UAV, a radio-controlled target drone, based on a reverse-engineering of the La-17, which was first successfully tested in December 1966 (China Youth Daily, January 23, 2015). In the 1960s, the PLA also recovered a U.S. AQM-34 Firebee UAV in North Vietnam and reverse engineered it to create the Wu Zhen-5 (无侦－5, WZ-5), also known as the Chang Hong-1 (“Long Rainbow,” 长虹).  By the 1980s, China had introduced the Cai Hong-1 (“Rainbow,” 彩虹一号, CH-1), a high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAV. In 1994, China imported a number of Israel’s Harpy UAVs, but its attempt to have them upgraded by Israel in 2004 was blocked due to U.S. pressure (Haaretz, December 22, 2004). While China’s capability to develop UAVs has progressed beyond an initial legacy of reverse engineering, the PLA has engaged in persistent efforts to acquire advanced drone technology through cyber espionage.