Inside the Secret World of Chinese Drones

Inside the Secret World of Chinese Drones

PLA theorists see unmanned operations (无人作战) as integral elements of future warfare.

In 2001, the PLA drafted its first “UAV Outline of Military Training and Evaluation” (UAV OMTE, 无人机训练与考核大纲), with Ju contributing to the process as a “soldier expert” (兵专家) (China Military OnlineMarch 15). The development of a formal curriculum for operational units at that surprisingly early stage suggests that the PLA was already starting to focus on advancing its UAV capabilities and training the appropriate personnel at that time. However, even though the PLA implemented a completely updated series of OMTE in 2009, there have been no reports thus far about an updating or systematic revision to this UAV OMTE. Given that Xi has mentioned training personnel for unmanned operations as a key area of focus, the future issuance of a revised OMTE would not be surprising (PLA Daily, May 16, 2014).

Challenges and Advances in the PLA’s Training of UAV Personnel

Despite continued challenges for the PLA’s UAV specialization (无人机事业), there do seem to have been appreciable advances in the sophistication of the PLA’s education and training programs. At this point, it is unclear how extensively best practices have been adopted across the PLA, but there is apparently recognition of those shortcomings and ongoing efforts to enhance and perhaps also expand existing programs. The review of two case studies within the PLA illustrates these challenges and progression.

According to a 2007 account, an unidentified Nanjing Military Region (MR) ground force brigade’s UAV team (某旅无人机队) had been notified two years previously that it would receive UAVs. Despite lacking prior experience with the system, it engaged in extensive advance training (PLA Daily, March 14, 2007). As such, the UAV team’s personnel all completed theoretical and operational training on UAVs, as well as “all-military UAV specialty officer training classes” (全军无人机专业军官集训班), which implies this was not just limited to ground force officers, as well as later engaging in online simulation training (网上模拟训练). To “fill the gaps in specialized theories and teaching for this type of UAV,” the members of that UAV team reportedly decided to write an “Introduction to Certain New-Type Unmanned Weapon Systems” (某新型无人机武器系统概述) (PLA Daily, March 14, 2007). Although this UAV team appeared to have the opportunity to undertake relatively comprehensive training, this perceived need to take the initiative to develop its own training materials suggests that the training and resources available were apparently lagging behind the needs of UAV operators expected to pilot and maintain increasingly advanced systems.

Despite subsequent progression in the PLA’s educational and training programming, the experience of a UAV battalion (无人机营) within a brigade of the former Guangzhou MR’s (now Southern Theater Command’s) 42nd Group Army (第42集团军) offers another illustration of how such “gaps” have apparently often been filled only through personal initiative. By the characterization of Major Li Changyong (李长勇), who was the UAV battalion commander (无人机营营长), “that the UAV specialization (无人机事业) has gaps isn’t frightful, perhaps it is that everyone is waiting for someone else to come fill in the gaps” (China Military Online, August 15, 2014). Li himself, a member of the PLA’s first class of UAV specialist undergraduates and master’s students, had graduated from the Ordnance Engineering College (军械工程学院) in 2008 (China Military Online, August 15, 2014). At the time, due to the lack of standardized operations regulations (规范的操作规程), instruction regarding UAVs was often “reliant on a single person’s experience.” However, when he took on the post of UAV battalion commander in 2012, Li compiled the 200,000-word “Regulations for the Operation of a Certain Model UAV” (某型无人机操作规程), based on extensive engagement with local UAV manufacturers and technicians (PLA Daily, August 10, 2014). As of 2016, Li’s UAV battalion had also introduced its own simulation training room for UAV operators (PLA Daily, March 2). However, it is unclear how extensively such new regulations and best practices for training have been implemented across the PLA.

Notably, this particular UAV battalion appears to be engaging in increasingly sophisticated, combat-oriented training. Through “confrontation training events that closely adhere to actual combat” (紧贴实战的对抗演练) between “Red Force” (PLA) and “Blue Force” UAVs (PLA Daily, March 2), Li has sought to enhance these forces’ operational capability, including in reconnaissance and jamming (PLA Daily, August 15, 2014). Under Li’s leadership, this UAV battalion has experimented with new tactical approaches, ten of which have reportedly been promoted by the former General Staff Department and perhaps disseminated across multiple former MRs (PLA Daily, August 10, 2014). In April 2015, a new UAV specialty training program (无人机专业集训) was established in the Guangzhou MR, likely co-located with this battalion, as part of a move toward a “base-ized training model” (基地化训练模式) (PLA Daily, April 13, 2015). This shift in the PLA’s approach to training reflected the recognition of existing challenges, including the shortage of talent and lack of standards and regulations, and an effort to consolidate resources in order to engage in more advanced operational training (PLA Daily, April 13, 2015). Although it is too early to tell whether this recent shift in the PLA’s approach to training with UAVs will prove successful, the PLA clearly realizes the importance of improving upon its existing training system and is actively seeking to do so.

Unknowns About PLA UAV Personnel

Within the PLA’s UAV specialty cadre (无人机专业干部), there are seemingly both officer and enlisted UAV operators (无人机操作手) and also UAV technicians (无人机技师), depending on the type of system. While officers serve as both operators and technicians, it is not clear if enlisted personnel serve as operators for any systems other than small target UAVs. However, although the terms could imply a division of labor between operators and technicians, as well as between officers and enlisted personnel, the boundaries between these roles might be somewhat blurred. Ju Xiaocheng, for instance, was known for his skill in both operating and repairing UAVs, but, as one of the PLA’s earliest UAV specialists, he could have predated a more formal differentiation of roles.

The PLA’s Organizational Structure for UAVs

Although there is only limited information available about the PLA’s organizational structure for UAVs, UAVs appear to have been deployed across all of the PLA’s services, as well as within the newly formed Joint Staff Department and possibly the Strategic Support Force. Depending on the type of UAV and unit, they are organized into teams (队), companies (连), battalions (营), flight groups (大队), regiments (团), and brigades (旅). Although there are no authoritative estimates of the total number of UAVs that are currently deployed, the PLA could field at least 1,000 medium- and large-sized UAVs, according to a retired Deputy Chief of the PLA’s General Staff Department. In addition, the PLAAF was said to have been using over 280 UAVs as of the beginning of 2011. [6] The table below provides available information concerning the types of UAV units identified under the former General Staff Department, as well as the newly formed PLA Army (PLAA), PLA Navy (PLAN), PLAAF, and PLA Rocket Force (PLARF).

Joint Staff


Intelligence Bureau, Information and Communications Bureau (信息通信局)

(former 2nd (Intelligence) Department and Informatization Department)

Various long-range reconnaissance and communications UAVs were apparently assigned to these departments (Yuntongmeng, March 18). [8]

PLA Army

Eastern Theater Command

The 1st Group Army (陆军第1集团军) has one or more UAV battalions (无人机营), as well as several UAV companies (无人机连) (PLA Daily, May 5, 2015).

The 12th Group Army (陆军第12集团军) has a battalion-level UAV flight group [dadui] (无人机大队) (PLA Daily, April 12)

Southern Theater Command

The 42nd Group Army (陆军第42集团军) has a UAV battalion (China Military Online, August 15, 2014).

The 41st Group Army (第41集团) has at least one UAV team. (China Military Online, June 15, 2013)

There were also one or more UAV teams in the former Guangzhou MR (PLA Daily, March 14, 2007; PLA Daily, November 2, 2007; PLA Daily, January 13, 2014).

Western Theater Command

The 47th Group Army (陆军第47集团) has at least one UAV team (PLA Daily, March 31).

Northern Theater Command

The 39th Group Army (陆军第39集团) has at least one UAV team. (PLA Daily, May 31, 2015)

PLA Navy

Eastern Theater Command

The Eastern Theater Command’s East Sea Fleet’s Naval Aviation has one UAV regiment (无人机团) and also a UAV reconnaissance flight group (People’s Daily, December 27, 2015). [9] This regiment has deployed the HY-01/BZK-005 MALE UAV, which has been sent on reconnaissance missions in the East China Sea, near the Senkaku Islands, since approximately September 2013. As of 2015, there were at least three BZK-005 UAVs stationed off the coast of the East China Sea according to an analysis of the satellite imagery. [11]

PLA Air Force

The PLAAF reportedly has multiple UAV regiments and other units at various levels, which have reportedly been equipped with the GJ-1 and/or BZK-005 UAVs (中国青年网, September 2, 2015). It is likely that the PLAAF is equipped with advanced UAVs across all five theater commands.