Key Point: In the summer of 2019, China’s exported killer drones attained new notoriety—in both the dubiously positive and unquestionably negative sense. The cheap unmanned aircraft have proliferated across the Middle East and North Africa, executing hundreds of deadly attacks in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and Yemen. But at least one type of “knock-off Reaper drone” seems beset by reliability issues.
While every military on the planet is adopting long-endurance surveillance drone, until recently only a small subset possessed Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAVs) capable of launching lethal attacks. This is because—until 2018—Washington tightly restricted export of its MQ-9 Reaper UCAVs through its conventional arms transfers (CAT) policy for fear of how they might be misused.
By contrast, China and Israel have few qualms about who buys their drones, or how they’re used. SIPRI records indicate China exported 163 UCAVs to thirteen countries 2008–2018 compared to fifteen MQ-9s delivered. Americans arms manufacturers complain their Chinese rivals are making a killing.
That’s true in more than just an idiomatic sense. In violation of the UN embargo, the United Arab Emirates has not-very-covertly deployed Chinese-built Wing Loong-II drones to Al Khadim airbase in eastern Libya to support the LNA, a rebel army fighting the Tripoli-based General National Assembly faction.
On August 4, 2019, one of the UAE-operated drones launched Chinese Blue Arrow-7 laser-guided anti-tank missiles in a “double tap” strike targeting a town hall in Murzuq hosting a meeting from a GNA-allied tribe, killing forty-six. The second volley killed guests from a wedding attempting to assist survivors of the initial attack.
Earlier in April 2018, a Saudi Wing Loong-II fired a Blue Arrow to assassinate Houthi rebel leader Saleh Ali al-Sammad.
Washington is not well-positioned to cast ethical stones, as it pioneered the use of UCAVs for targeted killings as well as air campaigns with broad rules of engagement treating all military-age males in a designated “kill box” as enemy combatants.
These tactics are only possible because, unlike heavier manned combat aircraft, UCAVs can circle over war zones at low speeds for hours upon hours, waiting for targets to expose themselves without risking the lives of their human operators. And drones are much cheaper to procure and operate then jet fighters.
That explains why so many countries are eager to obtain UCAVs.
Two medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drone families have dominated China’s UCAV exports: the Wing Loong manufactured by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG), and the Cai Hong “Rainbow” built by the Chinese Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation (CASC).
These use piston-engine pushers for propulsion, and can attack targets from relatively safe distances using small GPS-guided bombs, and AR-1 and Blue Arrow-7 laser-guided missiles weighing around 100 pounds. Both CAIG and CASC have developed progressively larger and more capable models carrying more weapons and sensors, improved satellite links so they can be remotely controlled from greater distances, and more powerful engines allowing them to fly higher, further and over longer periods of time.
The V-tailed Wing Loong (“Pterodactyl”), first exhibited in 2010, is China’s original UCAV export success, with around sixty to one hundred sold abroad. The $1 million Wing Loong-I first combined weapons-carrying capability with the laser/electro-optical sensors in a chin-turret to acquire targets and guide the missile to them. The succeeding Wing Loong-II incorporates a ground-scanning synthetic aperture radar and capacity for up to twelve munitions weighing together up to a thousand pounds. It also can automatically takeoff and land on short runways without human direction.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have extensively used Wing Loongs to perform airstrikes in Yemen, while Egypt has used its Pterodactyls to kill insurgents in the Sinai.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia struck a $10 billion deal to domestically manufacture as many as 300 Wing Loong-IIs. The Pakistan Aircraft Corporation is also slated to domestic joint-production of up to 48 Wing Loong-IIs.
Meanwhile, the CH-4 in service with Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq and Myanmar bears an uncanny resemblance to the Reaper—perhaps as a result of industrial espionage—though with only two tail stabilizers instead of three. The strike-capable CH-4B model can carry up to 760-pounds of weapons on six hard points.
By early 2018, the South China Morning Post reported that CASC had exported thirty CH-4B in package deals totaling $700 million. The manufacturer claimed the 1.5-ton drones had flown over a thousand sorties averaging ten hours each, and fired over 400 missiles, striking their targets 96 percent of the time.
The early, tailless CH-3 first saw combat use by Nigeria against Boko Haram in 2015, with one crashed during operations. CASC also recently exhibited a 21-meter-wide CH-5 model capable of carrying an over 1-ton payload totaling up to sixteen missiles, and flying over 6,000 miles and enduring thirty hours or more.
China’s export drones aren’t believed to be as sophisticated as American Reapers when it comes to the robustness of their command links and their maximum operating altitude. The latter factor may explain losses to ground fire, including Wing Loong drones shot down in Libya and Yemen, as you can see in this video.
But Chinese UCAVs may cost a quarter or less the price of a Reaper drone. For example, CH-4B drone individually costs only $4 million, while an MQ-9 Reaper has a fly-away cost of nearly $16 million in 2019.
Nonetheless, some operators may prefer to pay more for greater reliability.
For example, in 2016, the Jordanian Royal Air Force acquired six CH-4B drones in 2016, which entered service with its No. 9 Squadron. But just three years later in July 2019, the JRAF put all six up for sale, alongside aging transports, helicopters and jet trainers. Flight Global claimed the RJAF was “not happy with the [CH-4’s] performance”, but few more specific reasons have emerged.
Earlier, Algeria had decided not to purchase the CH-4 after two had crashed during evaluation flights in 2013 and 2014, with a Rainbow-4 reportedly hit the ground 100 meters short during landing.
But a Pentagon report assessing Iraqi operations against ISIS says that by 2019 the Chinese drones were no longer making much of a contribution.
“…maintenance problems resulted in only one of Iraq’s more than ten CH-4 aircraft—Chinese unmanned aerial system (UAS) similar in design to the American MQ-9 Reaper—was fully mission capable.”
To be fair, it’s possible this may be more a result of organizational rather than technical failing. The same report notes that Iraq’s ten Boeing ScanEagle drones had flow only twice since March.
It’s not clear if the Wing Loong has the same unspecified problems. A piece in the South China Morning Post obliquely notes that Saudi Wing Loongs “had not performed well in the Arabian desert.”
It’s too early to infer that recent bad press heralds a major reversal for Chinese export UCAVs. CAIG and CASC continue to offer larger and more capable models—most recently the sleek jet-powered Chengdu Yun Ying “Rainbow Shadow” drone, which can haul up to 7,000 pounds of ordnance at higher speed of 385 miles per hour.
However, in 2018 the Trump administration indicated it will be opening up sales of UCAVs. Despite the steeper cost of Reaper drones, Washington’s traditional clients in the Middle East may jump at the chance to curry political favor, and deploy a more reliable and capable unmanned platform.
Though a boon for U.S. arms manufacturers, it also means Washington will be held culpable for, and have to deal with the consequences of, how its exported drones are used by these clients.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.