Is China Ahead of America in Next-Generation Unmanned Aircraft?
(Source: Center for Security Studies; issued Nov 15, 2018)
By Andrea Gilli and Mauro Gilli
The China Airshow in Zhuhai is the annual exhibition that China uses, for both political and commercial reasons, to display the progress of her aerospace capabilities. Like previous editions, this year’s event saw China unveil several technologies, including a thrust-vectoring low-bypass turbofan engine and a jam-resistant and counter-stealth quantum-radar. The bulk of the attention, however, went to the mock-up of a new stealth drone, the CH-7, that resembles Northrop Grumman’s XB-47B demonstrator.

Many analysts and observers reacted to this news with concern, and some commentators even concluded that, with this new achievement, China has already passed or will soon pass the United States in next-generation unmanned aircraft technology. Sam Brannen, for example, goes as far as to claim that “We [the United States] 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.”

This specific case deserves attention for two main reasons. On the one hand, concerns about the United States losing its superiority in drone technology have been voiced for quite some time. Over four years ago, some scholars were warning that “the rest of the world [was] quickly catching up.” Many scholars and observers have worried in fact that low costs and technological simplicity may favor the proliferation of drones with direct implications for regional and even global stability.

On the other hand, that China is trying to copy foreign technology is nothing new, and many have wondered whether the new opportunities opened up by the digital age, such as cyber-espionage, might pave the way to a new era in great power rivalry in which technological advantages are inevitably transient.

Fortunately, both of these conclusions are largely exaggerated. (end of excerpt)


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