A mockup of the Chinese CH-7 combat drone on display at the  Zhuhai airshow this week.

A mockup of the Chinese CH-7 combat drone on display at the Zhuhai airshow this week. Michael Jerdev / AP

China’s Beating the US to Market on Combat Drones, By Copying US Technology

America seems to have squandered a 10-year head start.

The mockup of China’s CH-7 combat drone unveiled at Zhuhai Airshow this week looks a lot like one the U.S. Navy was developing — until it dropped the project, allowing China to position itself to beat the U.S. and other allies in fielding a long-range, high-altitude combat drone. That’s despite the fact that—in the words of one expert—the United States had a “ten-year head start.”

If the CH-7 makes its first flight next year and stays on track, it “will be the sole option for buyers wanting to field stealth combat drones” in 2022, crowed China Daily, citing “sources.” It will also be the sole option for buyers looking to purchase an aircraft carrier-capable combat drone (according to China’s state-run Global Times) that looks like the X-47B, an experimental drone that U.S. weapons-maker Northrop Grumman developed for the Navy.

Under a program originally called Joint Combat Air Strike and later Unmanned Combat Air System, the Navy sought a stealthy drone that could take off from an aircraft carrier, perform reconnaissance deep inside enemy territory and, if necessary, fight it out with enemy aircraft. The X-47B performed well in testing, but in 2015 the Navy decided it wanted an unmanned aerial refueling tanker instead, citing cost. Culture and technophobia may have played a role as well, said Paul Scharre, a senior fellow and director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“The main driver, especially for the Navy for which carrier deck space is limited, has been a cultural resistance by pilots to using uninhabited aircraft in combat roles,” Scharre said. That’s despite “ways using protected, jam-resistant communications to maintain communications with UCAVs in contested environments, permitting human oversight. U.S. policy in no way limits or constrains the military from building and fielding operational UCAVs.”

Related: Put the X-47B Back to Work — As a Tanker

Related: To Save the Navy’s Next-Gen Drone, Kill It First

Related: Congress’s Chance to Fix Aircraft Carrier Drones

Instead, the Navy solicited bids for a tanker drone that it dubbed the MQ-25 Stingray. In August, Boeing won the contract.

One industry representative said recently that all three bidders built their tanker drones to be convertible into combat aircraft, in the expectation that the Pentagon will eventually want that.

Of the contenders for it, General Atomics is the only company whose drones have demonstrated air-to-air combat capability, equipping MQ-9 Reaper aircraft with Sidewinder missiles. But the Reaper was developed to gather intelligence and strike ground targets while reaching about 300 miles per hour less than half as fast as the X-47B.

The main takeaway from the CH-7 announcement was that the Pentagon made a mistake in shelving its program, experts said.

“China has once again demonstrated its ability, at least in form, to replicate U.S. drone designs. Whether the systems works as advertised is a different story, however,” said Michael Horowitz, a professor of political science and the associate director of Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania. “While the United States publicly shelved the deployment of a UAV capable of operating in denied airspace, shifting the funds to an air-to-air-refueling UAV, China appears more interested in pushing the envelope now. China's reveal once again highlights that American military technical leadership is not inevitable. China and others are actively competing, and it will take sustained American effort to stay ahead.”

Sam Brannen, who runs the Risk and Foresight Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “We were a leader and now we are a laggard, stuck with expensive manned options and not doing nearly the experimentation and learning we need to. We’ll need to watch and learn from China and others now.”

Scharre added, “It's truly disappointing to see that China is now poised to pass the United States in fielding an operational uninhabited combat air vehicle. The United States had a decade-plus head start on UCAV technology with the X-45 and then X-47B programs and has unfortunately squandered that lead. If the Navy had continued to mature the X-47B demonstrator into an operational combat aircraft, as originally intended, the United States could be well on its way to fielding a 21st-century carrier air wing capable of long-range surveillance and strike. Instead, the U.S. Navy has opted for the increasing irrelevance of aircraft carriers in high-end conflicts.”

Elsa Kania, a fellow at the Center for New American Security, said that the drone might even allow China to partially catch up to the U.S. in carrier-based combat. “The new CH-7 may be useful for not only reconnaissance and targeting but also precision strike, thus augmenting what are characterized as anti-access/area denial capabilities. The PLA may be more inclined to explore an option that the U.S. military had declined to pursue because it is seeking to compensate for relative shortcomings in this regard,” she said.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Chinese UAV functions as well as its shelved American counterparts. But its performance doesn’t have to be superior, or even equal, to gain customers.

“China has given the world a ‘Huawei option’ when it comes to next-gen drones. It’s a far cry from what the U.S. or Europeans would offer, but it’s going to be on the market for sale. The countries likely to buy it aren’t ones the U.S. would probably sell to.” said Brannen.

The development tracks well with China’s rapid development and fielding of machine learning, autonomy, and robotics in warfare.

Said Kania, “The Chinese military has been quite enthusiastic — seemingly more so than the U.S. military in some respects — in its rapid development and increasing employment of advanced unmanned and autonomous systems.”

There’s no word yet on how autonomous the new platform will be, but it does give China an advantage in fielding a lethal flying combat robot, something that the U.S. is reluctant to do.

“There's no question that China will be less hesitant to use robotic weapons for autonomous targeting. Autonomous weapons that could target on their own without human oversight are not prohibited by U.S. policy. The policy simply requires they go through a more stringent approval process prior to development and again prior to fielding. However, senior defense leaders have said on several occasions that their intention is to keep humans ‘in the loop’ for use of force decisions,” Scharre said.