What's new

Wars in Ukraine and Mideast Show Why the US Needs to Dominate the Drone Industrial Base, Ukraine uses mostly Chinese drones in the war


Nov 4, 2011
Reaction score

Wars in Ukraine and Mideast Show Why the US Needs to Dominate the Drone Industrial Base, Ukraine uses mostly Chinese drones in the war​

11/08/23 07:00 AM ET
Seth Cropsey

In this photo illustration, a DJI Mavic 2 Pro made by the Chinese drone maker hovers in place on Dec. 15, 2021 in Miami, Florida. Reports indicate that the world’s leading drone maker, DJI, is among several Chinese companies placed on a U.S. government blacklist that prohibits businesses operating in the United States from exporting technology to companies.Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hamas’ use of small commercial-grade drones, generally classified by the Federal Aviation Administration as Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS), should come as no surprise to those interested in national security. The terrorists employed Chinese-made SUAS to take out sensors along Israel’s Gaza security fence and later dropped a Russian-model grenade on an Israeli tank in a manner reminiscent of Ukraine’s operations against Russia.

Drones increasingly define the modern battlefield, and SUAS are the most rapidly growing category of those. However, the Pentagon has yet to accelerate domestic procurement to ensure that we have the defense industrial base to produce these vital systems at scale.

The solution is a series of regulatory mechanisms to protect American markets from Chinese penetration, alongside additional funding for the Defense Innovation Unit’s (DIU’s) Blue UAS program and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks’ recently announced Replicator Initiative in fiscal 2024. Together, the goal must be to cultivate American and allied SUAS ecosystems to sustain European, Middle Eastern, and Asian combat operations.

Ironically enough, Israel and then-Soviet Russia realized the potential of drones before the U.S. and Western Europe. Israel employed drones in combat for the first time in 1982, using them as decoys to suppress Syrian air defenses in the Beqaa Valley and enabling a ground invasion of Lebanon. The Soviets, meanwhile, recognized the role of pervasive sensing on the modern battlefield, embodying it in the term “Reconnaissance-Strike Complex,” a concept that makes the interaction between high-volume sensors and a variety of munitions the centerpiece of military power.

Yet the post-Cold War period, during which the U.S., its allies and its adversaries faced largely non-state threats lacking conventional capabilities, warped drone development. The drones that defined the Global War on Terror — the Predator and Reaper — were large, highly-sophisticated, low-volume assets used for continuous surveillance and strikes against enemies that could only hide, not respond.

However, SUAS — low-cost units under a meter or so across with four to eight rotors, a handful of increasingly sophisticated sensors, and potentially a mounting for small grenades or mortar shells — were first employed on battlefields during the counter-ISIS campaign. ISIS jihadists used SUAS to deliver grenades against Iraqi forces in ferocious urban combat, among other tactics, amplifying the already brutal reality of urban assault.

Ukraine and Russia have both employed SUAS extensively since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Ukraine uses thousands of these attritable, mostly Chinese-sourced drone systems to track Russian forces in a fluid system enabled by StarLink communications satellites (when allowed by its owner, Elon Musk). It then feeds that information back to artillery crews to enable a fully disaggregated firing system, in which each “non-precision” gun becomes a highly accurate weapon. Russia has copied the Ukrainian system and, now, both sides expend many thousands of SUAS per month, spread across nearly every unit and embedded down to the platoon level.

SUAS, however, will be crucial when integrated into a strike complex akin to what Ukraine has developed. They enable responsive, rapid fires, thereby increasing the lethality of the battlefield when properly applied, as well as providing low-cost “eyes in the sky” for troop protection and battle-damage assessments.

The cat-and-mouse game between SUAS and counter measures will remain dynamic for the coming decade, as advanced computing and AI make SUAS more autonomous and enable swarming, just as counter-UAS systems become smaller, more mobile and better integrated into their own SUAS sensor networks. Winning this fight will require a vibrant dual-use SUAS ecosystem, comprised of multiple companies that can combine rapidly evolving commercial capabilities with innovations stemming directly from the battlefield, building in new modifications to their products as they become apparent in combat. This, in turn, necessitates a large-scale SUAS industrial base in the U.S., linked to counterparts and supply chains in allied states.

China recognized the relevance of SUAS to future combat several years ago. This explains why China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have supported Chinese SUAS manufacturers, foremost among them DJI, which holds a 70% global market share of SUAS. Beginning in 2017, DJI swept into the American market and crushed the nascent domestic SUAS industry with low pricing and other tactics; its products quickly became ubiquitous, not just in private companies but in local public safety and law enforcement, critical infrastructure operators and federal agencies alike. DJI’s global expansion strategy explains why its products are prevalent on the Ukrainian battlefield for both sides, and in the Middle East.

The U.S. and its allies cannot simply integrate Chinese drones into their forces absent serious security risks, as well as the very real possibility of Chinese supply-chain disruption if tensions between the two nations worsen. This is why Congress and the Defense Department began acting in 2020 to ban Chinese drones from federal use. Three years later, small American SUAS producers still have seen few opportunities to close in on DJI’s massive head start in technology and scale.

As an example, DJI purchased legendary Swedish camera manufacturer Hasselblad in 2017, locking down the superior optics and sensor technology of a company that put cameras on the Moon. High-definition aerial imaging is a critical battlefield SUAS technology. To rapidly close this sensor-technology gap, and to prevent further Chinese takeovers, America and her allies must forge similar pan-Pacific and pan-Atlantic alliances, such as with Sony in Japan, Phase One in Denmark and Workswell in the Czech Republic. That will require American venture capital, and that capital will not follow until there are funded federal programs.
The Defense Innovation Unit’s Blue UASprogram is a good start. It provides a framework for American and allied drone manufacturers to win federal contracts and grants them a U.S. security credential confirming that they are insulated from hostile supply chains. Deputy Defense Secretary Hicks can further accelerate Blue UAS by folding it into her ReplicatorInitiative aiming to jump-start domestic drone manufacturing and field tens of thousands of cheap, attritable SUAS within the next 24 months.

Despite these two programs, there is no dedicated funding line for SUAS procurement. A real funding mechanism with a specific focus on SUAS procurement would go a long way to scale up U.S. capacity quickly. Ideally, this would allow American SUAS manufacturers to feed products onto the Ukraine battlefield — a $1 billion annual program would work, based on current pricing. It also would give American SUAS manufacturers and their Blue UAS-certified supply chains a strong incentive to innovate and build rapidly, unleashing tens of billions in venture capital and strategic industry investments.

More critically, the U.S. has moved too slowly toward a full ban on DJI products. Most state and local agencies, as well as operators of critical infrastructure such as electrical utilities or oil and gas operators, still depend on Chinese drones to accomplish such missions as monitoring pipelines and overhead power lines. Unless a real ban on DJI drones is enacted, U.S. companies will continue to face vastly better capitalized, under-priced Chinese manufacturers, preventing us from building an industrial system for a strategically critical capability.

Meaningful funding and a real federal ban on DJI will not only produce the two-year quantum SUAS leap that Replicator is looking for. It also will jump-start a thriving American drone manufacturing base critical to our national security and, in turn, fuel re-shoring and friend-shoring of advanced battery systems, sensor technologies and microcomputers, and spur the additional AI development necessary to create the next generation of SUAS.

The Biden administration should move to ban all DJI products within the next fiscal year, and tie that ban to a series of programs in the fiscal 2025 budget to incentivize rapid SUAS industry growth.

This would be an enormous step forward for the U.S. and its allies. A coherent UAS expansion plan would catapult the U.S. into global leadership in drone technology before the end of the decade, create hundreds of thousands of American jobs and, crucially, provide the U.S. with an edge in a rapidly developing military capability whose potential already is shaping events in Ukraine and the Middle East.


U.S. States Are Flying Thousands Of Chinese Drones Across The East Coast. Marco Rubio Is Furious

Thomas Brewster
Forbes Staff
Jun 1, 2023,11:05am EDT


FOIA records show state governments and local police are buying thousands of Chinese drones made by DJI and Autel, flying them all over the East Coast. Marco Rubio says there’s “no excuse.”

In Washington D.C., lawmakers have been banging the drum about China potentially turning drones from Beijing’s industry giants into remote aerial surveillance machines, threatening national security and Americans’ privacy. Yet U.S. cops and states continue to purchase Beijing manufacturers’ drones. Freedom of Information Act responses and previously-unreported police data reveal state and local agencies have registered thousands of Chinese flying machines from companies Autel and DJI, the world’s biggest drone maker valued at $16 billion.

That even extends to the United States Capitol Police: records of state government drone registrations at the Federal Aviation Administration show the United States Capitol Police has four models manufactured by China’s Autel Robotics. They are the only drones currently in use by the Capitol Police, according to spokesman Tim Barber, who said they were acquired last year for $2,000 each, but are yet to be deployed around Washington D.C. and were being used for training with no access to the department’s network. The purchases came to light thanks to freedom of information requests filed by Jerome Greco, who filed the FOIAs outside of his role as supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society. (A day after publication, Barber said the Capitol Police had ditched the drones and it no longer has any unmanned flying vehicles whatsoever.)

That Capitol Police chose Chinese manufacturer Autel for its only drone purchases rather than buy American is indicative of a wider trend: Autel and DJI have 70% market share in the local government market across Florida, New Jersey, New York and Washington D.C., and dominance amongst major police departments in Maryland and Virginia. But states may soon have to bring the manufacturers and their drones back down to earth, should others follow Ron DeSantis’ lead in Florida and ban China-made unmanned aerial vehicles over intelligence concerns, or Congress pass proposed legislation to counter the apparent threat of foreign espionage.

The American intelligence community’s fears about Chinese spying have manifested in various attempts to curtail Beijing’s biggest technology companies and their data gathering efforts, the most prominent example being recent threats to outlaw TikTok, owned by Beijing’s ByteDance. Huawei and ZTE are amongst the bigger names to have already suffered; the White House has blocked their entrance into the U.S. market.

“We should expect that every image, video and dataset is accessible by Beijing.”
Senator Marco Rubio
Without providing any evidence of the specific threat, and in the face of criticism that there is none, lawmakers and defense officials have long raised concerns about the potential for Beijing to pressure Chinese manufacturers like Autel and DJI to start sending visuals and data back to Communist Party snoops. As a result of those anxieties, in 2020, the Commerce Department blacklisted DJI, barring American companies from exporting to the company. In 2021, the Pentagon assessed that DJI technologies posed “potential threats to national security.” The Pentagon did, however, allow itself special dispensation to buy Chinese drones if they were for training or unique intelligence purposes.

In the most recent broadside, Senators Mark Warner and Rick Scott have put forward the American Security Drone Act of 2023. Supported by Senators Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, the bill would prohibit federal agencies from purchasing drones from countries identified as national security threats, including China. It would also ban the use of any federal grants given to law enforcement for the purchase of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles.

Presented with information on widespread police and local government use, Florida Senator Rubio said in a statement to Forbes, “Given everything we know about the Chinese Communist Party there is simply no excuse for using these drones, especially in our nation’s capital.”

“The use of these drones by Capitol Police and other law enforcement agencies around the country sends the wrong signal. It suggests the drones are safe to use. They are not. We should expect that every image, video and dataset is accessible by Beijing. Congress needs to act. We cannot continue helping our adversary spy on us.”

DJI director of policy and communications Carol Kaplan said DJI products were secure, adding that operators had full control over the data the devices collect and can choose whether or not they want information uploaded to a server. “Current efforts to restrict the use of our drones by governmental agencies are based on nothing more than conjecture and supposition, and accomplish nothing but handicapping first responders who deserve the best equipment available to them regardless of country of origin,” Kaplan added. “Anything less is a disservice to the men and women who put their lives on the line for us all each and every day.”

Autel spokesperson Coco Lee said the company had no comment on intelligence concerns. However, a recent post on its website about its work with police in Papillon, Nebraska, Autel said its drone camera feeds were “broadcast on encrypted frequencies, and flight data is stored internally on each drone,” adding that its servers were based in the U.S.

Chinese drones swarm the East Coast

DJI is by far the dominant player in providing drones to American police departments and state governments, though its lesser-known local rival Autel is gaining some traction.

FOIA requests filed by Greco showed that in New Jersey, of more than 550 drones registered by government and police departments in the state as of April 2023, over 440 were DJI and 65 were Autel. In Florida, there were over 3,000 government registrations for unmanned flying vehicles. Over 1,500 were DJI and nearly 300 were Autel. A previous request filed in New York state by the American Civil Liberties Union showed the Chinese companies were trouncing the competition there too: 461 for DJI and 29 for Autel, out of a total of 530. Across the three states, the two dronemakers represent 68% of registrations.

Separately, Forbes asked agencies located near Washington D.C. what aerial vehicles they flew, finding that Maryland State Police have a 28-strong, Chinese-only fleet of DJI and Autel devices. Fredericksburg police department, less than 50 miles south of D.C., also previously used Autel, though now only operates DJIs.

Despite the Pentagon’s warnings, its own departments can’t completely quit buying DJI either. A Forbes review of federal contract records found that since April last year, the U.S. Navy and Air Force purchased a device each made by the Chinese giant. The Defense Department agencies didn’t respond to requests for comment.

China’s dogfight over the U.S. police market

DJI’s dominance amongst American cops is due to early market entrance, low cost and high reliability, said Tim Martin, a former Huntington Beach officer who now trains police from across the U.S. to pilot drones. While the federal government has tried to promote American and European brands like California-based Skydio and France’s Parrot, they remain overly expensive for most police departments, who don’t have the same budgets as the likes of the FBI or the DEA, Martin said. “You can get two DJI drones for the price of those other ones,” he added. That’s why 95% of the drones police want training on are DJI, Martin said.

While DJI remains king, Autel has some advantages over its rival, in particular around Washington D.C. All DJI drones currently have a “geofence” that means they are automatically downed as soon as they enter sensitive zones within the capital. Autel tech does not have those restrictions.

DJI Chinese drones dominate US policing market

DJI commands a huge lead of others in the global drone market, though local rival Autel is trying to gain market share amongst U.S. police. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

It also hasn’t suffered the same reputational damage as DJI after the Commerce blacklisting and Defense Department warning. In 2020, Autel, aware of its competitor’s perception problem, claimed it was moving manufacturing of some components to the U.S., promising law enforcement its Evo II aircraft were made in the USA “with foreign and domestic parts and labor.”

But that may have been little more than a marketing ploy. Randall Warnas, former Autel CEO in America, told Forbes that rather than the device being assembled in the U.S., an almost-complete drone would be sent from China and an American-made camera would be affixed with some simple screws. “It was never made in the U.S.,” Warnas said. “It was only that they were trying to find a way to separate themselves from DJI and gain market share.”

Autel spokesperson Coco Lee said “substantial U.S.-based labor in research and development, assembly, and U.S. material costs between our Silicon Valley and Seattle offices” went into the 2020 version of the Evo II. The U.S.-targeted model was, however, discontinued in 2021 and replaced by the Evo II DUAL 640T, which sources parts from China and is definitively not made in America.

“Aerial surveillance is another tool whose use is growing and legislatures are neglecting to properly address.”
Jerome Greco, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society
That abortive attempt to woo a U.S. audience didn’t reach the federal government. Lee admitted that Florida’s ban and the American Security Drone Act have already had “a negative impact on sales.” Autel is, however, trying to get on the Blue sUAS program, a Pentagon initiative to create a list of trusted small unmanned aerial systems approved for government use. That would help the company get some traction in the federal market and give it a reputational leg up over DJI.

Warnas, who was a former DJI sales manager before a short stint as Autel’s CEO, also played down any concerns about Chinese drones being turned into surveillance devices. He said a ban appeared nonsensical when cops had spent millions on drones that were largely recording footage of everyday events, like drug dealers on the run and individuals going missing.

“If the Chinese could access this, and that's a big ‘if,’ who cares?” he added.

Warnas, who spent just three months with Autel before leaving due to disagreements with Chinese leadership over managerial styles, said the U.S. shouldn’t rush out legislation banning use of DJI and Autel “until we can figure out how to manufacture cheaply and get a supply chain of components that are made outside of China.”

For cops on the ground, meanwhile, economics trump politics. “They just want something that's reliable and safe, and they're less concerned about the transfer of data,” added pilot trainer Martin. “But they’re also cautious about what they fly over. They’re not saying it’s a myth… they're not flying over critical infrastructure, because there is that concern.”

Privacy anxiety

The debates over drone origin also distract from what Greco, a legal expert on privacy and technology, believes is the bigger impact of widespread drone usage: an invasion of Americans’ privacy. Many of the devices being used by police today come with artificial intelligence and self-flying features, with the ability to follow suspects without human intervention. For instance, the Autel drones being tested by the Capitol Police come with an “intelligent moonlight algorithm” for quality video capture in the dark, and can automatically track a target.

According to Greco, the FOIA responses on FAA drone registrations showed how increasingly prevalent the aerial devices have become, without the requisite oversight. “We have agencies at all levels of government across the country buying thousands of drones with little to no prohibition on the purpose of their use,” said Greco.

“Aerial surveillance is another tool whose use is growing and legislatures are neglecting to properly address.”


Top Bottom