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Dive Into This Shocking Report On Chinese Drone Power

January 10, 2019

A new analysis by the CSIS’ “China Power” project examines the scale and scope of China’s drone exports. Precise metrics and specifications are given, including an assessment of market share for armed UAV exports, to illustrate how far unmanned systems from the People’s Republic have spread across the globe. Some of the findings are not too controversial (Chinese military drones lag behind in performance) but there are valuable insights for market researchers and policy wonks alike. Titled Is China at the forefront of drone technology? the entire report is paywall-free and is laid out with useful graphics.

There are six key findings that emerge from the lengthy piece:

  • China trails Israel and the US in total military unmanned aircraft sales in the last 10 years, but ranks a solid third among non-commercial drone exporters globally. It does rank first in selling attack drones or armed UAVs, however.
  • The CASC CH-4 is China’s best known MALE attack drone and rival to the superior General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. But the CH-5 and its unnamed “heavy fuel” engine could lessen the gap with the Reaper’s technology by extending the CH-5’s mission endurance to 60 hours.
  • Another popular MALE UAV sold by China is the Wing Loong I/II that matches the performance of the CH-5 and several dozen CH-series and Wing Loong drones were exported between 2008 and 2017. The combat record of Chinese UAVs in foreign war zones is impressive.
  • Chinese-made military drones don’t match the performance of their analogs made by Israel and the US; they’re not as fast and have smaller payloads. But the CH-5, for example, sells for half the price of an MQ-9 Reaper.
  • A majority of China’s non-commercial drone exports are armed UAVs. The most popular is the CH-3, which is manufactured under license in Pakistan, and the three largest customers of Chinese drones are Egypt, Myanmar, and Pakistan.
  • China dominates commercial drone sales. Three of the five largest civilian drone manufacturers are Chinese companies and one of them, DJI, enjoys a near monopolistic 72% market share.


The authors do break down how Chinese drones, especially the armed variants, succeed in the global market. The US, for example, enforces tighter export controls on premier “strike-capable” UAVs, with the bulk of sales abroad limited to surveillance models. Israel, on the other hand, is unable to sell drones anywhere in the Middle East, thereby missing a lucrative market. It more than makes up for this by having cornered surveillance drone buyers everywhere else.

As for China, its drone exports are surging because of price and (to a lesser extent) the availability of weapons for these platforms. One example cited is how Iraq’s acquisition of a few MALE CH-4’s allowed it to wage a persistent air campaign against the Islamic State that “helped boost the profile of Chinese unmanned systems.” But the authors don’t acknowledge similar feats by Chinese UAV’s flown by Nigeria and Pakistan. Another advantage that isn’t emphasized enough is the willingness to shift production abroad even if a joint venture with Saudi Arabia for assembling CH-4’s is mentioned.

A forecast of how Chinese drones can distort the global market is not part of the text. But it’s apparent China will likely remain a serious contender in military UAVs for years to come. While emerging drone exporters such as Iran, Turkey, South Africa, and South Korea have made impressive progress with locally designed unmanned aircraft, a lack of exposure and marketing savvy have narrowed their prospects. The persistence of would-be players such as India and Russia are just as notable, but their best results are subpar compared with China’s sprint to achieve world prominence in unmanned systems.

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