China’s Air Force has created a new unit dedicated solely to tracking and responding to drones, according to China Daily. In a press release, the PLA Air Force said the unit would focus on “small, slow-moving drones flying at an altitude of less than 1,000 meters,” China Daily reported.
The language in the report makes it seem as though military drones are the main target. The article mentions that the new unit has been practicing drills against drones used in “reconnaissance, infiltration, or strike operations.” It also notes that small drones, which are difficult to detect via radar, “can pose a substantial threat to key positions.” However, the specific focus on low-altitude, low-speed drones makes it more likely that the PLAAF unit will spend most of its time engaging with drones being operated by China’s own citizens.
The unveiling of the news unit comes as China mulls how best to control drone use by civilians, in the wake of several potentially dangerous incidents. In November 2015, a drone was discovered flying near a military airfield in Hebei Province without authorization. According to China Military Online, a PLAAF helicopter forced the drone to land and police confiscated it. In another incident, an unauthorized UAV flying near an airport in Zhejiang Province forced the airport to close for nearly an hour. China Military Online, without going into detail, also claimed that other unauthorized drone flights “have disturbed military flight training.” All of the drones involved in those cases were civilian: the UAVs in question “were owned by private companies, aviation enthusiasts as well as a few airlines,” CMO reports.
Those incidents appear to be what’s behind the new PLAAF anti-drone unit. In November of last year, shortly after the military airfield drone encounter in Hebei, PLAAF spokesperson Shen Jinke said that the Air Force, in cooperation with Chinese civil aviation and public security authorities, would move to more tightly regulate low-altitude, low-speed drones. The new PLAAF unit is a direct outcome of that promise.
“In recent years, flights of small drones have become rampant across the country despite the government’s efforts to handle the problem… Some of the flights have threatened the safety of military and civilian aircraft,” China Daily paraphrased Shen as saying.
Chinese law currently requires drone operators to get approval before sending their UAVs into the air, but it seems many people are simply ignoring that regulation. In 2014, a source estimated for the Wall Street Journal that around 80 percent of Chinese UAV flights are unapproved. To combat that problem, China has been mulling stricter steps, such as requiring drone operators to register in a national database. There are an estimated 100,000 privately-owned drones in China right now, according to CRI, and the industry in China is supposed to skyrocket over the next decade.
Of course, China is likely keeping a close eye on military drone development as well. According to research from the New America Foundation, 86 countries around the world “have some sort of drone capability” – including many of China’s neighbors, such as India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea, and Vietnam. North Korea, too, has been known to send drones across the demilitarized zone and into South Korea.
Shannon Tiezzi is Managing Editor at The Diplomat