The assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq last week shows the ever increasing role of drones in modern warfare. But while China has its own fleet of powerful unmanned aerial vehicles , it is unlikely to use them for such an audacious mission, analysts say. During last Friday’s operation, a US MQ-9 Reaper, controlled from afar, identified and locked in on Soleimani’s convoy near Baghdad airport. It fired at least two missiles at the two vehicles, killing everyone inside. Introduced to the US military in 2007, the long-endurance stealth drone is capable of carrying up to four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and other bombs, and can fly for up to 14 hours at a cruising speed of more than 300km/h (186mph). It is piloted by two operators from a ground station up to 1,850km (1,150 miles) away. While the Soleimani assassination is probably the drone’s highest profile mission to date, it was also used in the air strike in Raqqa, Syria in 2015 that killed Islamic State terrorist Mohammed Emwazi, or “Jihadi John” as he was dubbed by the press. Not all of the United States’ drone missions have been so successful, however. In June last year, an RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance craft was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz by an Iranian air defence missile, while several MQ-9 Reapers have been shot down in recent years by the Iran-backed Houthi military group in Yemen. The US is also not alone in its development of military grade UAVs. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has equally powerful machines at its disposal, though has yet to use them in such a high-profile or deadly mission. Military commentator Ni Lexiong said the role of UAVs in combat would only get bigger. “Future warfare will involve more technology and fewer humans,” he said. “Air superiority is the key to victory, so UAVs will have a very important role to play.” Beijing-based military commentator Zhou Chenming agreed. “Drones are quiet, fly at low altitude and are hard to detect. So to prevent a drone attack is difficult and costly,” he said. But while China had UAVs capable of carrying out missions similar to the one that killed Soleimani, Zhou said Beijing was unlikely to risk breaking international law by using one to assassinate a foreign leader. “I don’t see China using this method,” he said. “The PLA tends to be more cautious and discreet.” During China’s National Day parade in October, the PLA showed off several UAVs, including the DR-8 supersonic spy drone, the GJ-11 stealth combat drone with its flying wing design, and the GJ-2 reconnaissance and strike drone. Several new Chinese UAVs are currently under development, while others are in service in foreign militaries. As of early 2017, CH-4 and CH-5 fixed-wing reconnaissance and strike drones, for example, had been sold to more than 10 countries across central Asia and the Middle East , with more than 200 units being shipped abroad each year. And in 2018, China finalised its biggest ever drone sale when Pakistan agreed to buy 48 GJ-2 drones, under their export name, Wing Loong II. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.