China’s combat drone push could spark a global arms race

AVIC's Wing Loong II drone.

Photographer: Mikhail Voskresenskiy / AP Images

A dozen years after its fight with the Islamic insurgent group Boko Haram, Nigeria is getting some new weapons: a pair of Wing Loong II drones from China. The deal is one of a growing number of state-owned sales. Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC), which has exported dozens of aircraft. The UAE has used AVIC drones in Libya’s civil war, Egypt has targeted rebels in the Sinai with them, and Saudi-led troops have deployed them to Yemen. The company’s drones “have now been battle tested,” says Heather Penney, a fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia. “They have been able to incorporate the lessons learned into its manufacture.”

Nigeria is getting the second generation Wing Loongs from AVIC (the name means “pterodactyl”), which can fly as fast as 230 mph and as high as 30,000 feet, with a payload of a dozen missiles. Since 2015, when AVIC introduced the newest model, it has produced 50 for export and a number unknown to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. And it’s working on even more advanced aircraft, such as a stealth fighter drone with a flying wing design similar to that of the US B-2 bomber.The drone program, combined with deliveries of fighter jets, trainers, transporters and assault helicopters, has propelled AVIC into the upper ranks of the global arms trade. In 2019, it sold military equipment valued at $ 22.5 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), placing it sixth in the world, behind five US companies.

AVIC’s drones have two big selling points: They’re cheaper than comparable planes from US producers or Israel, the other primary manufacturers, and China doesn’t care much about how they’re used, says Ulrike Franke, a researcher at policies at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “China is willing to export armed drones to almost anyone,” he says. AVIC did not respond to requests for comment.

Combat drones delivered

By Chinese and US suppliers, 2010-2020

Exclude orders that have not yet been delivered.

AVIC sold $ 22.5 billion worth of drones and other military equipment in 2019, making it the sixth largest arms exporter in the world, behind only US companies.


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