China’s drone technology has caught up and overtaken the United States. China has made major advances in swarm control technology and now finds a ready market for its advanced drones in countries across the Middle East and Africa.
The U.S., Japan and other governments are struggling to deal with the fact, as drones have opened up a new front in the modern combat battlefield alongside cyber and space warfare. It will take aggressive efforts to keep Beijing from dominating this new battle space. Now is the time for the U.S. and Japan to join forces to challenge China’s drone advantage and build up a formidable arsenal for our militaries and for those of other liberty-loving nations.
Leveling the Playing Field
Civilian drones has advanced so rapidly that even small armed forces can now cheaply and easily carry out air strikes on much larger militaries, a capability once reserved for major powers such as the United States, China, and Russia.
Until very recently, it was considered impossible to attack an opponent by air when the enemy boasted a strong air defense network and a more powerful air force. Even the Iraqi army, a formidable mid-sized regional power under Saddam Hussein, proved incapable of challenging the air dominance of the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Since 2015, however, new possibilities have opened up for weaker powers and even guerrilla and non-state actors, dramatically leveling the playing field. As General David G. Perkins expressed, bombs loaded on “a quadcopter that cost $200 from Amazon.com” can pose a legitimate threat to American forces in the field. Civilian bomb drones are said to be proliferating in the Middle East, and a unit of the U.S. Army marching to Mosul, Iraq was attacked by a drone.
To get a sense of the revolution being fashioned by drone technology, one senior U.S. Air Force official recently observed that, prior to the Mosul attack, “our ground forces have not come under attack from enemy aircraft since the Korean War 65 years ago.” For the first time in more than six decades, the great powers find themselves vulnerable to an attack from the sky.
Governments and military organizations around the world are scrambling to deal with the threat, which is only likely to grow. Civilian drone makers have succeeded in developing automatic charging systems, extending flight ranges, and producing ever more sophisticated drones — even as prices fall. Clearly, we must urgently confront this threat.
“The drone society is coming,” Assistant Professor Masaki Minami at Keio University SFC recently pointed out. “Drones will utilize the space of 15 to 150 meters [above ground] where once only birds, insects, and electric waves had been active before.” Some compare the emerging revolution to the Cambrian explosion, which produced a massive diversification of life and the sudden introduction of a vast array of new life forms. The uses the new drones can be put to, in both the civilian and military worlds, are only limited by the imagination of the operator.
That makes China’s clear development lead all the more worrying. One Chinese drone company, DJI, claims 70 percent of the drone market for individual use. A 2018 exercise in the South China Sea by another Chinese drone maker involved an “army” of more than 50 tiny, coordinated drone ships which can be directed to form a “shark swarm” against an enemy vessel in the event of combat. China has also proven a willing supplier of its drone technology to some questionable customers. Liberty is in peril if China dominates this new battle space.
Fighting Back — Together
Fortunately, both the U.S. and Japan have — potentially — the industrial and technological resources to compete. JAMSTEC and Osaka University in Japan have carried out advanced research in battery technology, special materials such as carbon for drone construction, and the use of drones underwater. In the United States, research on large drones and swarm technology has made major strides, and U.S. military technology remains the best in the world.
But, as the China example shows, the U.S. and Japan as allies must move beyond the artificial distinction between civilian and military drone research and development, and begin implementing policies on the basis of “national security industries.” Security industries in both countries should collaborate in a much more extensive and systematic way. Countries in Southeast Asia where the same principles of liberty are respected should be offered the opportunity to share in the benefits of this research, to challenge the emerging Chinese hegemony of drones.
Together we can draw on the strength of American and Japanese industry and brainpower and establish victory in drones!
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