Drones are playing a growing role in China’s military operations, from the Himalayan border areas to the depths of the seas off its eastern and southern coasts, as the People’s Liberation Army embeds the technology in nearly every sphere of operations. Recent satellite images, as well as media and academic reports, have confirmed a significant stepping up in the deployment of drones, developed for an array of uses, in joint combat operations and strategies. Chinese state media have showed a range of drones undergoing high-altitude testing in the Himalayas, with a focus on studying joint operation tactics with different troops on the ground, intelligence collection and delivery of supplies. And the Eastern Theatre Command – responsible for the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait , as well as underwater operations in the South China Sea – has many advanced unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) and reconnaissance drones, according to state media and academics with a military background. China’s pilotless technology goes back to the 1960s when, like many Western countries, it started turning old fighter jets into target drones for pilot training and weapons testing. The first home-grown target aircraft was delivered in 1966, according to an early PLA Daily report. The PLA established its first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) squadron in 2011, with nearly 70 hypersonic drones based on the air force’s retired J-6 and J-7 platforms at its base in the northwestern province of Gansu, according to observations by the Taiwanese defence ministry. Over the past decade, thanks to the country’s state-driven military-civil fusion strategy, China has become a world leader in the technology, with its Wing Loong and Caihong combat drones winning customers in Africa and the Middle East . How China’s flying submarine drone could change sea battles Experts say drones will become increasingly significant in warfare and the PLA’s focus on the technology is necessary if the world’s largest military is to counter new challenges at home and overseas. For example, the US and Japan last month said they planned to deploy seven MQ-9 Reapers for the first time, to step up surveillance in the East China Sea. “Beijing is strengthening its unmanned system deployment because the PLA needs to deal with increasing military challenges and threats posed by the US and Japan in the region,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung. “Indeed, drone technology will significantly reduce casualties, which will help Beijing solve a long-term problem left behind by the current low birh rate problem.” The Journal of Harbin Engineering University last year revealed the PLA was developing unmanned submarines capable of recognising, following and attacking an enemy submarine, without human instruction, beneath the waters of the Taiwan Strait. Other Chinese unmanned platforms in operation or under construction include surface vessels, long-distance gliders that can cross an ocean to gather information, a research station on the deep sea floor of the South China Sea, and a UFO-like drone that can both fly and cruise underwater, according to the journal. For Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review, the latest reports provide “more evidence Beijing will strive to push drone development, as conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh have shown drone technology will play a more significant role on future battlefields”. New Chinese spy drone ‘will make combat scenes in the movies a reality’ “The satellite images taken in October last year showed the PLA had deployed at least eight GJ-1 or GJ-2 attack UCAVs and four reconnaissance drones to the army’s airbase in Hotan, Xinjiang ,” he said. The medium-to-high altitude GJ-1 – for Gongji, which means “attack” in Chinese – is a domestic military version of the Pterodactyl, or Wing Loong-2, developed to counter the American MQ-9 Reaper at a quarter of the cost, making it a contender in the international arms market. The GJ-2 upgraded variant can reach a top speed of 370km (229 miles) per hour at an altitude of 9,000 metres (30,000 feet), and stay in the air for 20 hours. According to a military source, the GJ UCAVs could be used for counterstrikes or anti-terrorist operations, while reconnaissance drones have a role in patrolling uninhabited areas of the Himalayas. Beijing and New Delhi have further strengthened their defences along their de facto border, the Line of Actual Control (LAC), since bloody clashes in June 2020 killed at least 20 Indians and four PLA soldiers – their deadliest encounter in more than four decades. While tensions remained high in the strategically important Galwan Valley area of the LAC, troops would continue to patrol but drone deployment would continue to be part of the PLA’s long-term border defence strategy, the military source said. The source said this was because of the variety of roles unmanned systems could perform – from intelligence gathering to reconnaissance and disruptive operations, as well as direct attacks on enemy targets – all at a relatively low cost. Meanwhile, the WZ-7 and WZ-8 are high-altitude endurance drones with stealth technology that can operate above 15,000 metres. They were originally designed for maritime patrols near the uninhabited islets in the East and South China seas. According to Janes’ Defence Weekly, the WZ-8 – which made its debut in the 2019 National Day parade – was deployed to the PLA Air Force base in Jiangsu province, eastern China, and began operations with the 30th Air Regiment in 2020.