Artist's concept of a drone swarm. Credit: C4ISRNET

China will be showing its latest drone-killing technology alongside other advanced weapons at the 14th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, which runs in Zhuhai, Guangdong, through this week.

The state-run Global Times reported that China would unveil at the event a new anti-drone system built around small-and-micro missiles, advanced sensors and radar and unmanned ground vehicles.

The system, made by China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), China’s largest missile manufacturer, is comprised of an electro-optic radar and DK-1 low-altitude detecting radar, the ZK-K20 ground missile anti-air control system, HQ-17AE and QW-12 short-range missiles and the ZR-1500 unmanned smart defense weapon system.

The electro-optic radar and DK-1 low-altitude detecting radar work together to provide early warning and can detect multiple targets simultaneously. It can reportedly pinpoint 20 targets per second from 500 meters to 18 kilometers. Apart from drones, the DK-1 can detect ground vehicle targets as well.

The ZK-K20 ground missile anti-air control system is the system’s “brain” that integrates sensors and missiles, with the HQ-17AE and QW-12 as the primary weapons. The former missile has an interception range of 1.5 to 20 kilometers, with the system capable of guiding four missiles simultaneously.

In addition, the ZK-K20 system is armed with a soft-kill anti-drone electronic warfare suite and a cannonball launcher to solve cost issues in intercepting cheap drones.

The ZR-1500 serves as the security element for the system and is armed with 12 micro-missiles, four small missiles and two loitering munitions, and can switch to other weapons such as machine guns if needed.

It reportedly has an intercept range of 5 kilometers against targets such as fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, drones, ground vehicles and personnel.

China’s HQ-17AE short air defense system on a snowy plain. Photo: Twitter

“The rise of low, slow and small drones with rather agile applications on the battlefield has transformed the landscape of warfare, which tends to achieve surprisingly good strike effects,” says CASIC spokesperson Wang Wengang.

He notes that even the best air defenses can become useless against such drones, as they usually fly too low to be detected.

Recent rapid developments in drone warfare have shown they are now effective weapons in large-scale conventional wars, debunking previous thinking that drones are high-tech gadgets reserved for special forces in counterterrorism and insurgency roles. These developments likely prompted China to invest in anti-drone defenses.

The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, the ongoing Ukraine war and the hypothetical use of drone swarms in a Taiwan invasion scenario all underline the evolution of warfare using drones in a mainstream role.

This May, Asia Times reported on how Azerbaijan used its Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones and Israeli Harpy loitering munitions to significant effect against Armenian forces, which attempted to use the same tactics that won the previous war over the region in 1994.

To be sure, attributing Azerbaijan’s war win against Armenia solely on the former’s drones overlooks the two sides’ military asymmetry, with Azerbaijan’s military much larger and more modern than Armenia’s.

Ukraine used its Bayraktar drones against Russian forces to potent effect in the early months of the Ukraine War, decimating Russian forces that were seemingly defenseless against drone attacks.

However, the effectiveness of Ukraine’s Bayraktar drones has reportedly diminished as the war drags on.

The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 war drone used by the Ukrainian military. Photo Creative Commons

In a July article for Insider, Alia Shoaib notes that Russia has improved its defense systems by jamming and destroying many of Ukraine’s drones. While Russia had significant and advanced electronic warfare and anti-drone capabilities at the start of the Ukraine war, they were deployed in a disorganized way, resulting in disproportionate Russian casualties.

Russia sought to rectify this, and as a result, Ukraine is losing drones far more quickly due to improved Russian defenses, and Ukraine’s drone losses may not be sustainable. As a result, Ukrainian pilots now say that drones now play a limited role while simultaneously advocating for the acquisition of modern fighter jets from the West.

More recently, the drone war in Ukraine may have swung in Russia’s favor with the help of Iran. This July, Asia Times previously reported on Russia’s plans to acquire drones from Iran, noting that unsustainable battle losses, lack of advanced drone models and limitations in its drone industry may have forced it to go for a hot transfer of armed drones from Iran. 

However, the greatest eye-opener for China to develop its anti-drone defenses may be the decisive role drone swarms could play in an invasion of Taiwan.

This May, Asia Times reported how drone swarms could turn the favor of a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan to the US and its allies, noting that these swarms can be deployed together with advanced stealth aircraft to hit Chinese ships, planes, and missile batteries.

Drone swarms could be decisive in any conflict scenario over Taiwan. Image: Facebook

Moreover, drone swarms can form a screen for sophisticated manned aircraft, extending the range of the latter’s onboard sensors, enabling them to observe electronic silence to avoid detection and flood enemy radar screens as decoys, forcing the enemy to expend limited missile and ammunition before manned systems move to in for the kill.

China has no doubt been watching these drone warfare developments and is aware that it might be on the receiving end of drone attacks in a potential regional conflict with the US and its allies.

The development of CASIC’s new anti-drone system attests to China’s appreciation that drones have become a mainstay of large-scale warfare. Moreover, it demonstrates a sense of urgency to counter their evolving and fast-moving threat.