China's has unveiled a new laser system to shoot down small, low-flying drones. On Sunday, scientists at the China Academy of Engineering Physics announced they had perfected a laser that shot down drones flying up to 110 miles per hour at altitudes of as high as 1,600 feet as far as 1.2 miles away, according to the state-owned Xinhua news agency.
"Intercepting such drones is usually the work of snipers and helicopters, but their success rate is not as high," said the project's leader, Yi Jinsong, in the Xinhua article.
Mounted on a vehicle, Jinsong added, the system could stop terrorists from using drones against large crowds at sporting competitions, political conferences, and other events.
Of course, the system could also be used against US military drones, who employs the world's largest fleet of drones. Or sold to countries like Pakistan where many people are outraged by US drone activity in their skies.
China's system isn't the first to envision shooting down drones, said Cornell University Government Professor Sarah Kreps. But the Chinese system demonstrates how other countries are growing more sophisticated in anticipating drone threats that we've pioneered.
"Every new technology eventually faces the 'measure-countermeasure' problem," Kreps told VICE News. "It's just natural that countries would find ways to defang the capabilities of armed drones. We've seen this coming."
A few years ago, Air Force brass noted that some "drones are useless in contested airspace," said Kreps, meaning they're no match for enemy fighter planes. But the technology has advanced quickly and more governments — including China, India, Turkey and Pakistan — are developing drone and anti-drone programs.
"The technology has become lighter and smaller, creating a different set of vulnerabilities for typical air defense systems — hence the need for this kind of system that can counter smaller-scale drones that could actually be more insidious," she said.
Since 2008, the United States has conducted more than 1,700 drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and elsewhere, as Kreps explained in a recent Foreign Affairs article. The US has killed more than 450 people with drones, according to Kreps.
The United Kingdom has deployed drones in Afghanistan. Israel has flown drones in Palestine. Israel also shot down a drone operated by the Palestinian militant group Hamas during the Gaza Strip conflict earlier this year.
The proliferation of drones has led Kreps to question if they make warfare too easy because they don't expose pilots to danger. She and others have argued that President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, have routinely authorized drone attacks in airspace where they would be reluctant to send manned warplanes.
Now, China is facing similar questions as it beefs up its drone arsenal.
China and Japan have rattled sabers over Chinese drones that were flying over islands claimed by bother countries in the East China Sea. Upping the stakes, Japan last year publicly adopted a policy to shoot down drones if they ignored warnings to leave Japanese air space. That's a looser standard than for manned aircraft, which become targets only if they pose a threat to Japanese nationals. China, meanwhile, has said it would consider an attack on a drone as an act of war.
The anti-drone laser defense system is an example of China flexing its muscles at a time of rising tensions in the Pacific region, Kreps said. But it would be a shame if it emboldened Chinese leaders to go to war and jeopardize millions of lives just because Japan blew up a high-tech remote-controlled aircraft.
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