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Hackers Are Helping China Build Cheap Clones of America's Drones

Don't reinvent the drone. Hack it.
China's Chengdu Wing Loong, or Pterodactyl, which resembles the US's well-known Reaper drone

Beginning in 2011, a series of weaponized emails—PDF and Word attachments with malware inside—were sent to people who work in America's drone brain trust. A cybersecurity group found that the attachments, many of them with benign titles like "dodd-frank-conflict-minerals.doc," "Boeing_Current_Market_Outlook_2011_to_2030.pdf" and "April Is the Cruelest Month.pdf," originated with a hacker group in Shanghai linked to China's military.

Of the 261 attacks uncovered, 123 targeted U.S. drone companies, from large defense contractors to small firms. "We believe the attack was largely successful," Darien Kindlund, manager of threat intelligence at the cybersecurity company FireEye, based in California, said in February. “It seems to align pretty well with the focus of the Chinese government to build up their own drone technology capabilities,” he told the New York Times in a report published on Saturday, which included a salad of alarming cyberpunk keywords: China. Drones. Hacking. Secret Military Campaigns over Contested Territories.


Creepy language aside, if you've been following news of China's military hackers, little of this should come as a surprise. Of course Beijing, despite insisting that it's not behind the attacks, and is itself is the victim of cyberespionage, has a motive for going after American drone secrets, just as it would with any emergent military technology, and just as Washington does in return.

The evidence suggests that Bejing is enthusiastically seeking unmanned technology, and is willing to use newfangled means to get it. Over the weekend signs emerged of a massive cyber-security incident in the US Navy's systems, one that necessitated an unusual two-day interruption by network admins. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the country's Chief Naval Officer told members of Congress that cybersecurity was his second biggest priority after nuclear deterrence.

But this isn't a new arms race yet. The fear is that China's drone military arsenal, which currently numbers less than 300 units—second only to the US's—could further disrupt the balance of power in East Asia, and escalate tensions with Japan and other neighbors. Japan has said it is considering shooting down drones that cross into its airspace, as at least one Chinese drone did recently.

A report earlier this year by the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute warned that if the US were pulled into armed conflict between China and Japan, it would face a formidable challenge from Chinese drones. "The PLA has developed one of the largest and most organizationally complex UAV programs in the world," the authors wrote.

The 1970s-era Changkong-1 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle & Target Drone was based on the Lavochkin La-17 radio-controlled, ramjet-powered target drone, which the Soviet Union shipped to China in the late 1950s

China's drone capacity is now over half a century old, and it started with a copy: after the Sino-Soviet split, the PLA began reverse engineering the Soviet Lavochkin La-17C target drones that it had received from Moscow in the late 1950s. Today, information about the PLA’s drone efforts is limited, but a report to Congress over the summer noted that China “probably is developing and operating UAVs for electronic warfare," and aircraft that “probably would focus on jamming tactical communications and global positioning system (GPS), but could provide a range of other capabilities, including false target generation against enemy Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS)/Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and power grid attack.” Note the use of probably.

The Times also notes that China is interested in building drones that the US doesn't really have a counterpart for. Recently, Mike Hostage, chief of the air service's Air Combat Command said that MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers—the U.S. military's most prominent attack drones—"have limited capability" against even basic air defenses. "We're not talking deep over mainland China; we're talking any contested airspace. Pick the smallest, weakest country with the most minimal air force—[it] can deal with a Predator."


Still, the American drone program far exceeds the capabilities of that of any other country; between miniature drones, stealth drones and long-range drones, it's thought that the U.S. is still 20 years ahead of China.

But by stealing designs, China can avoid years of mistakes and create far cheaper versions that can be used for surveillance and tactical warfare. Why reinvent the drone if you can copy it wholesale?

While it's still not clear just how much access Chinese cyberspies have had to American designs, among the drones China now has on offer, many do look suspiciously like clones of American models.

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper / AVIC Wing Loong

The American MQ-9 Reaper and the Chinese Wing Loong (US Navy / Sina)

There's the the CH-4 and Wing Loong, or Pterodactyl, the two most prominent drones in China's arsenal. Both look a lot like the US’s MQ-9 Reaper, the US’s go-to attack drone that is itself a bigger version of the MQ-1 Predator. The Pterodactyl, which is believed to have been tested carrying out ground strikes with anti-tank guided missiles, has a flying time of 20 hours and a range of 4,000 kilometers. The Reaper, by contrast, has a maximum flying time of 40 hours and a range of 6,000 kilometers.

X47-B / Lijian (Sharp Sword)

The American X47-B and the Chinese Lijian, or Sharp Sword (US Navy / Weibo)

In May, amateur photos showed a swept-wing drone thought to be the Lijian, or Sharp Sword, taxiing on a runway. Its design seems to pay homage to the X47-B, the stealth drone designed by Lockheed Martin to launch from and land on an aircraft carrier. Like the X47-B, the Sharp Sword is designed to evade radar, and appears to have two internal bomb bays. Even a Chinese promo video for the aircraft resembles a Lockheed promo for its so-called Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system (UCLASS), right down to the Top Gun music.

Lockheed Martin's promo video for its stealth carrier-based drone, and a Chinese military video for its version, the Lijian, or Sharp Sword

Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel / Unknown Chinese drone

And then there are the drones that can't be talked about publicly. Over the summer, grainy photographs emerged on Chinese internet forums of a stealthy new drone with a distinctive swept-wing design that bears a close resemblance to the RQ-170 Sentinel, a secret US drone that has been spotted in Afghanistan. Nicknamed "The Beast of Kandahar", the RQ-170 was reportedly used to provide live video to the White House of the assault on Osama bin Laden's compound in 2011.

In 2011, a secret US MQ-170 drone crashed in Iran. This summer, a photo of a similar drone appeared on a Chinese internet forum

That same year, Tehran got its hands on one of these stealth drones after it landed, fully intact, on Iranian soil. (This week, Iran said it would soon release its own reverse-engineered version of the RQ-170.) While Washington has acknowledged losing the drone, it's not clear if Iran hacked the drone's guidance systems, as it claimed to have done, or if as some speculated, Chinese hackers assisted the Iranians. What's clearer is that in 2012 a team of Chinese experts visited Iran to inspect the captured drone. (After the bin Laden operation, it appeared that Pakistan allowed Chinese officials to inspect another secret aircraft, a stealth helicopter that a Navy SEAL team had crashed at the site.)

There are other promising models too: the Xiang Long BZK-005, which bears a slight resemblance to the US RQ-4 Global Hawk, is a longer-range UAV designed for reconnaissance, with a flight time, cruise altitude, and cruising speed that reportedly matches the American version. Its range however is only a third of the Global Hawk's range of 20,000km. The Anjian, or Dark Sword, is a more original design, reportedly intended for air-to-air combat.

A comparison of recent Chinese military UAV designs

Despite the striking resemblances and possible IP theft, China is thought to lag far behind on the technical side of drones. China's UAV software and control systems are not as advanced as comparable US systems, and the country's pilots suffer from a relative lack of experience operating drones for extended periods of time.

"If we rank the automation capabilities of UAV with 10 being the highest score, China can only get five or six," Wang Yangzhu, deputy director at the Unmanned Aircraft System Institute under the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, told China Daily in June. "The most outstanding obstacle confronting us remains the engine problem," Wang said. The PLA's budget, a fraction of the Pentagon's, also accounts for lower capabilities.

There's another concern, and one left largely untouched by the Times story: by copying US drones and building them at cut rates, China could become the go-to drone builder for smaller military powers eager to get in on the drone craze. In essence, the booming drone market that the US has created could be China's for the taking, in an echo of China's global green energy ambitions.

China could parlay the advantages it does have into more money for research by dominating a budding world market. Its low costs and relatively loose export controls mean it can gain a foothold ahead of the U.S. and Israel.


For instance, the Wing Loong—the Chinese version of the Reaper—can be had for the bargain price of $1 million, compared to the Reaper, which goes for about $30 million.

Because China is not a member of either the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) or the looser but broader Wassenaar Arrangement, a recent report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, "China’s Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Industry," notes that, “in the long term, China’s continued interest and progression in strategic-level UAVs appear poised to position China as a leader in the high-end UAV market.”

“In the absence of competition from more sophisticated U.S. or Israeli alternatives," concludes the report, "China could become a key proliferator to non-members of the MTCR or Wassenaar,” mainly developing countries.

"(The US) drone exports are very expensive platforms, very sophisticated," Wendell Minnick of Defense News told the VOA last year. "The Chinese produce a much cheaper variety that basically does the same job. [They] are looking at an export market that's growing."

Serve the Robots

China's UAV industry is thought to have sold UAVs to the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan, and five to six nations in Africa and Asia have reportedly expressed their intention of buying a Wing Loong, the discount Reaper drone (China . But China's well-known technical limitations remain a liability in the eyes of most buyers. "I'm sure they'd like to be [a big exporter], but the question is, do you want to buy Chinese equipment?" Richard Bitzinger, an ex-CIA analyst, told the VOA last year. "The reliability, the maintenance of these things is still unproven, and there's a lot of political baggage that comes with buying Chinese [products]." And unlike the US and Israel, China hasn't had many chances to gain real-world experience with their drones yet.

That began changing earlier this year, as the country began flying UAV sorties over the contested Diaoyu/Senaku islands, raising tensions with Japan, and over along China’s southern coast. There are reports that drones are also planned for the South China Sea where China has made claims over the oil- and gas-rich region over the protests of the Phillipines. Beijing has also said it would establish a dozen drone bases along its coast by 2015.


As in the US, China's drones are making a splash domestically too. Last year, the state-run Global Times reported that Beijing police were using a drone to look for illegal opium poppies in rural areas of the capital. The department also said it would use unmanned aircraft to monitor traffic accidents, conduct aerial surveillance, or help with rescue operations. (China's internal security budget exceeds its military budget.) “As the Americans say,” Huang Wei, the director of China's CH-4 program, told the Global Times recently, “the U.A.V. is fit for missions that are dirty, dangerous and dull.”

The Hubei Ewatt SVU-200 rotary-wing UAV appeared at August's USAVI conference in Washington, DC (USAVI)

Drones are also being considered for monitoring of power lines, and they have made their way into the delivery industry. Last month, a company in Shenzhen began using drones to deliver packages, though its unclear if that complies with domestic aviation laws, which have yet to regulate the use of unmanned systems by civilians. In the US, drones are being regulated on a state-by-state basis, but Taco Copter doesn't look like it will be dropping burritos to you any time soon.

There are the creepier uses of drones too. Last year, an official with the Public Security Bureau said that it had considered using a drone to track down and kill a murderous Mekong River drug lord—a prospect that raised alarms among some in the west who worry what Beijing, with its emphasis on state security and relative disregard for privacy and rights, might do with drones in more restive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang.


Of course if China were to go after criminals with drones, it would again be copying the precedent of the world's leading drone power, which, again, might have little to say or do about that.


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