A report by the Project 2049 Institute contends that Beijing has made considerable strides in its development of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).
"The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) appears to be fielding operational UAV capabilities that could have significant future regional security implications," says the 15-page report.
"In order to support China's efforts to become a world-class leader in unmanned technology, the PLA has developed an extensive and organisationally complex UAV infrastructure over the past decade."
It estimates that China fields 280 UAVs, with this number to "increase significantly" in the coming years.
The authors sourced information for the report mainly from materials that are publicly available in Chinese. Aside from detailing the various organisations involved in China's development of UAVs, the report forecasts possible UAV tactics, particularly the future role of UAVs in a conflict with the USA.
"This should be of particular concern to the US Navy because according to several military-technical materials reviewed for this study, PLA operational thinkers and scientists envision attacking US aircraft carrier battle groups with swarms of multi-mission UAVs in the event of conflict," says the report.
Chinese thinkers see long-range UAVs serving a number of roles in any anti-access/aerial denial campaign against the USA. Early in the conflict, decoy UAVs would be deployed, tricking US fighters and warships into expending valuable anti-aircraft missiles. This would be followed by waves of UAVs equipped for electronic warfare, jamming communications and radar. Simultaneously, other UAVs would mount kinetic attacks against both US airborne early warning & control aircraft and warships.
UAVs would play an integral role in guiding cruise missiles and anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) attacks against US naval assets. Although the status of China's DF-21D ASBM is unclear, it is a source of serious concern for US defence planners. The DF-21D would theoretically be able to strike a carrier (or other major warship) directly, or shower them with bomblets. A rain of high-explosive bomblets would be catastrophic on an aircraft carrier's deck.
At the Airshow China in Zhuhai in 2010 and 2012, the China Aerospace Science and Industrial Corp stand showed a model of a large UAV designated the WJ-600. A mural in 2010 showed a WJ-600 attacking US Navy Arleigh Burke destroyers with anti-ship missiles, as well as guiding missiles from shore-based batteries.
"The PLA has developed one of the largest and most organisationally complex UAV programmes in the world," says the report.
"This programme includes national-level organisations tasked with developing joint UAV mission requirements; a massive military-industrial design, research and development, and production infrastructure; and a growing number of operational UAV units spread across every service branch of the Chinese armed forces."