China expands drone surveillance

May 22, 2011 02:43 am | Updated 09:37 am IST - BEIJING:

High above the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, it was but a sparkling light.

The unidentified object was, however, bright enough to catch the attention of officers of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) force, who were on a recent patrol in the difficult high terrain along India's disputed mountainous border with China.

The bright speck, they knew, was out of place among the gently flickering stars that usually keep them company on cold night patrols.

The ITBP and military experts believe the sighting was only the latest confirmation of a military programme across the border that is revolutionising China's surveillance capabilities — the country's fast-expanding domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or “drone”, industry.

The programme's success was easier to spot in Beijing this week, where Chinese companies displayed a range of domestically-developed UAVs at an exhibition on police equipment and anti-terrorism technology.

Once reluctant to discuss the state of development of the country's home-grown “drones”, Chinese authorities are increasingly showcasing the industry's rapid progress, as well as looking for foreign markets.

At last year's air-show in Zhuhai, foreign observers were left stunned by 25 UAVs that were displayed, at stages of development far more advanced than earlier thought.

“The Zhuhai display showed substantial variations in Chinese capabilities, and indicates that their science and technology, as well as research and development, is quite phenomenal in this area,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of Chinese studies and an expert on the Chinese military at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

In Beijing this week, industry representatives were bullish about the UAV industry, suggesting a significant expansion was on the cards. Representatives of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), one of China's biggest UAV manufacturers, said UAVs would play a bigger role in China's anti-terrorism missions.

While the drones are being designed primarily for anti-terrorism, their use has also been expanded to border reconnaissance, particularly over the Taiwan Straits, still a focus of China's military interests.

UAVs “will be useful for reconnaissance along border areas, where natural conditions are inhospitable,” Li Wei, director of the anti-terrorism research center at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), an official think-tank in Beijing, told the State-run China Daily in a recent interview.

The drones are dual-use — they will also be deployed for civilian purposes. Beijing police officials said at the symposium they would consider using UAVs in emergencies, and also to monitor traffic.

But it is China's military programme that has received most attention.

Also on display this week were drones with domestically-designed weapon platforms.

For a programme that was only launched a decade ago, growth has been rapid. Ten years ago, China was reliant on Israel for its supply of Heron UAVs. However, American concerns over their deployment in the Taiwan Straits subsequently forced China to seek alternatives.

The first domestically-produced UAV was unveiled only four years ago, at the previous Zhuhai air-show.

Recently, the UAVs have been “used substantially in Tibet and Xinjiang,” Mr. Kondapalli said. “Since the number one national security threat number is the Three Evils [terrorism, separatism and religious extremism], they are providing real-time information to the government on the ground, whether any Al-Qaeda operatives are sneaking into Kashgar [near Xinjiang's western border].”

The drones are also useful for border surveillance. China's biggest drone, the ASN-229 A, has a 2,000 km operating radius, and is directed by satellite.

China's success, Mr. Kondapalli said, “would impact India's own thinking process,” with the country still reliant on Israeli UAVs.

Underscoring the widening gap in capabilities across the border, the recent sightings by the ITBP could not be documented with certainty, given the lack of sophisticated equipment in many outposts in India's border regions.

The personnel of the ITBP patrol with rudimentary equipment. When they looked skyward, they had no high-tech surveillance tools to turn to — they only had binoculars for company.

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