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 the near future, the PLAAF could have at least five “UAV flying regiments” (无人机飞行团), each armed with at least a hundred attack UAVs, likely the “Attack-1” type UCAV (攻击-1型无人攻击), according to less authoritative reporting (科罗廖夫, April 7)

Eastern Theater Command

There is potentially a combat UAV brigade (作战无人机旅) in this theater command, based on reports from Russian experts repeated in Chinese media. (Sina, February 28, 2014; 米尔网, April 28, 2015)

Southern Theater Command

There is potentially a combat UAV brigade (作战无人机旅) in this theater command, based on reports from Russian experts repeated in Chinese media. (Sina, February 28, 2014; 米尔网, April 28, 2015)

Northern Theater Command

There are at least several UAV units [budui] and subunits [fendui] (无人机部队/分队) in this theater command (China Military Online, April 7; China Military Online, April 21; PLA Daily, May 4)

Central Theater Command

Since the PLAAF units who operated the GJ-1 UAV in Peace Mission 2014 were from the former Beijing Military Region, it is likely that there are UAV units at multiple levels within this theater command as well (China Military Online, November 4, 2014; Xinhua,November 13, 2014)

PLA Rocket Force


Although there are fewer references to dedicated UAV units within the PLARF, a number of UAVs have been deployed within this service (e.g., Sina, February 2, 2015):

Indications exist that a missile brigade formerly subordinate to the former Nanjing MR and possibly equipped with UAVs has been incorporated into the PLARF’s Base 52 in Anhui Province, where they can cover the East China Sea and Taiwan.

There are also indications that a missile brigade that was formerly subordinate to the former Guangzhou MR and possibly equipped with UAVs has also been incorporated into the PLARF’s Base 53 in Yunnan Province, which could cover a variety of potential targets, including locations in India and Southeast Asia. [12]


The PLA’s expanding deployment of unmanned systems for multiple missions will probably result in the establishment of new UAV units, while further increasing the demand for qualified UAV operators and technicians. Since the PLA has developed its cadre of UAV personnel in peacetime, without the pressures associated with combat operations, it has apparently avoided certain challenges that the U.S. military has faced in terms of recruitment and retention. However, the PLA’s existing programs for the education and training of UAV operators and technicians will certainly face increasing demands and could be expanded. Between 2014 and 2023, China could reportedly produce an estimated 41,800 or more land- and sea-based unmanned systems, and thousands of these systems will probably be deployed by the PLA (DoD, 2015). Although the remaining “gaps” in the PLA’s UAV career track might be progressively filled in, the development of appropriately educated and qualified personnel to operate and maintain these advanced UAVs will remain a critical determinant of the PLA’s actual operational capabilities with these systems.

Looking forward, the men and women behind the PLA’s unmanned systems could play a critical role in future crisis and conflict scenarios, and evidently their training preparing them to do so. As the U.S. military’s experience has demonstrated, the capacity to recruit, educate, train, and retain an adequate number of UAV operators and maintenance personnel can be a critical element of a military’s capability to engage in high-tempo operations with unmanned systems in a conflict scenario. The deployment of UAVs for surveillance and reconnaissance missions in the East China Sea, as well as perhaps eventually in the South China Sea, could reinforce China’s ability to maintain a persistent presence in these disputed waters. UAVs could be utilized extensively for counterterrorism operations, potentially in Xinjiang, and for also border defense. In a conflict scenario, there are concerns that the PLA would use multiple refurbished J-6 fighters as UAVs to overwhelm Taiwan’s air defenses or against a U.S. aircraft carrier.[12] Ultimately, the PLA’s realization of such ambitions for unmanned systems will remain inextricable from the underlying human and organizational dimensions.

Elsa Kania will be a 2016 graduate of Harvard College, where she has majored in Government and wrote her thesis on the PLA’s strategic thinking on information warfare. Elsa was a 2014–2015 Boren Scholar in Beijing, China and is a 2015–2016 undergraduate associate of Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She has worked at the Belfer Center, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, the Department of Defense, and FireEye, Inc.

Kenneth W. Allen is a Senior China Analyst at Defense Group Inc. (DGI) and a concurrent Senior China Analyst with the USAF’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). He is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, whose extensive service abroad includes a tour in China as the Assistant Air Attaché. He has written numerous articles on Chinese military affairs. A Chinese linguist, he holds an M.A. in international relations from Boston University.

This story originally appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief

Image: Asia Times via Flickr