Chinese-made drones have been used extensively to combat extremism outside of China, but the Chinese military has avoided conducting lethal strikes themselves.(AFP/File photo)

For years, drone warfare has been an essentially American pursuit.

The new age of armed robots has been symbolized by Predators and Reapers spewing deadly Hellfire missiles.

But guess who’s the biggest exporter of combat drones? China.

“In 2014–18 China became the largest exporter in the niche market of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), with states in the Middle East among the main recipients,” according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which compiles estimates of global military strength and arms spending.

Indeed, combat drones are spreading across the globe, according to a report by Michael Peck at National Interest.

“The number of countries that import and use unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs)—which are remotely controlled armed aircraft often referred to as armed drones — continued to increase in 2014-18,” SIPRI said.

China is now taking that a step further.

China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG) – a subsidiary of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) – has reportedly signed a deal with the provincial government of Sichuan to develop an industrial park in the region, dedicated to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), Jane’s has reported.

A statement by the Sichuan government said the new facility will be located in Zigong, in the centre of the province, and will focus on both military and commercial UAVs.

“We will develop a world-class manufacturing industry cluster,” said the statement.

The industry park will possess capability “across the entire UAV industrial chain” including design, research, development, testing, assembly, manufacturing (including 3D printing), commissioning, and sustainment, the statement added.

China claimed last month its new stealth Feilong 2 drone can rival the US Air Force’s B-21 Stealth technology, which is an improvement over the B-2 (shown) bomber. Credit: National Interest.

Under the plan, CAIG and the government of Sichuan will jointly invest about CNY10 billion (US$1.55 billion) in developing the facility.

The government also forecasts that the industry park, once fully operational from around 2023, will generate the same amount of funds in terms of annual production output.

Around “100 large UAVs” are estimated to be developed and built at the facility every year, which will be named the CAIG-Zigong UAV Industrial Base.

Outlining the rationale behind the project, the Sichuan government said the facility will support its efforts to expand the regional aerospace industry and economy, and is aligned with national efforts to develop capability in military and commercial unmanned systems.

It added that CAIG is expected to consolidate some of its “widespread” industrial UAV assets.

Interestingly, China’s more aggressive foreign policy in Asia has hampered its arms exports. “China’s arms exports are limited by the fact that many countries — including 4 of the top 10 arms importers in 2014-18 (India, Australia, South Korea and Vietnam) — will not procure Chinese arms for political reasons,” SIPRI noted.

Last month, China has announced the completion of its new stealth drone Feilong 2, claiming it could rival the US Air Force’s B-21 stealth bomber, Eurasian Times reported.

Quoting the South China Morning Post, Zhongtian Feilong Intelligent Technology — the Xian-based drone maker’s multirole high-subsonic UAV could be used for precision strikes on key assets such as enemy command centers, military airstrips, and aircraft carriers.

China’s YLC-48 is an L-Band radar designed to locate and track down enemy mortar positions within a 360° field of detection. It can also detect low-flying aircraft or drones. It is similar in shape and design to the AN/TPQ-48 of the US Army. Credit: Handout.

The Feilong-2 or Flying Dragon 2 could also be used with a swarm of drones to carry out reconnaissance and surveillance, a saturation attack, or damage assessment, it added.

According to the developer, the Feilong-2 or Flying Dragon-2 has similar speed, attacking range, payload, and stealth capabilities as the Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider, which is expected to take its maiden flight by July.

The B-21 Raider of the US Air Force is an advanced heavy bomber being developed by Northrop Grumman under its Long-Range Strike Bomber Program. It can deliver both conventional and thermonuclear weapons.

According to sources, the new B-21 is poised to benefit from continued innovations and yet-to-exist technologies.

China also recently unveiled an advanced radar, that it says can detect stealth aircraft, including drones, and low-flying cruise missiles.

China has unveiled new advanced radars that could detect stealth aircraft, including drones, as well as low-flying cruise missiles, as the country continues to aggressively boost its fighting capabilities and flexes its military muscle amid emerging tensions in the region.

The portable and multipurpose radar, can be carried by a single soldier, according to the Global Times.

The equipment is being dubbed the “terminator of drones” for its capability to detect small and slow targets that blend themselves under strong noise waves by flying close to the ground.

The so-called “YLC-48 radar” can “effectively detect and track incoming targets from any angle,” according to its developer, the No 14 Research Institute of the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC).

The radar uses digital integrated circuits, and it can be mounted on all kinds of lightweight weapons platforms, can conduct missions under all-weather conditions, and can be rapidly deployed and withdrawn, the report said.