Look Out Below

China’s First Drone War Is Here

The United States is not exactly happy about Beijing’s drone proliferation. But, in this one case, it’s been strangely helpful.

08.11.15 5:00 AM ET

The United States is still by far the world’s leader in the field of military drones, with hundreds of high-tech, missile- and bomb-armed robot aircraft and thousands of smaller, unarmed models deployed across the planet.

But China is catching up fast. And now we can confirm that Beijing’s remote-controlled warplanes have had their combat debut—in a seemingly unlikely place. A social media post seems to verify what observers have suspected since January: China’s killer robots are at war in Nigeria, apparently helping Abuja’s military battle the deadly Boko Haram extremist group, which controls much of northeastern Nigeria and has kidnapped and enslaved hundreds of girls.

The first evidence that the Nigerian air force had gotten its hands on Chinese-made unmanned aerial vehicles came on Jan. 27 this year, when Twitter users in Nigeria’s Borno state, in the war-torn northeast, posted photos of what appeared to be a crashed drone.

And not just any drone. The wreckage matched the profile of a CH-3—boomerang-shaped, roughly 25 feet from wingtip to wingtip and powered by a rear-mounted “pusher” propeller. Capable of flying an estimated 12 hours at a time at a cruising speed of around 150 miles per hour, the camera-equipped CH-3 is a “a capable system. Not cutting edge, but capable,” according to Peter W. Singer, a drone expert at the New America Foundation and the author of several books, including the newly released Ghost Fleet.

Most surprisingly, the crashed drone in Borno was packing a pair of what looked like AR-1 air-to-ground missiles under its wings. The January Tweets were the first indication ever that armed Chinese drones had flown in combat. America’s own unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have been flying strike missions since late 2001.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, which makes the CH-3, did not respond to an email seeking confirmation of the CH-3 sighting. Nor did the Nigerian air force. On July 24, Nigerian news outlet Naija247news posted a story online featuring several photos of Air Vice Marshal Sadique Baba Abubakar, a top air force official, visiting a military airfield in Yola in northeast Nigeria.

One of the photos depicts Abubakar inspecting—you guessed it—a CH-3 drone.

To be sure, Chinese officials have been saying for years that they would happily sell UAVs to, well, pretty much anyone—meeting a demand for robotic warplanes that the United States refuses to satisfy. Export laws bar American companies such as General Atomics, which manufactures the iconic Predator and Reaper, from selling to many countries.

“The United States has a responsibility to ensure that sales, transfers and subsequent use of all U.S.-origin [drones] are responsible and consistent with U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, including economic security, as well as with U.S. values and international standards,” the State Department explained in a February press release.

“Recipients are to use these systems in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” the State Depatment added.

That would disqualify Nigeria, whose military and police can be as brutal as the insurgents they fight. “In its response to Boko Haram, and at times to crime in general, security services perpetrated extrajudicial killings and engaged in torture, rape, arbitrary detention, mistreatment of detainees, and destruction of property,” the State Department said in a 2014 human rights report.

Washington has been keen to help Abuja battle Boko Haram, but has been reluctant to arm Nigerian troops. Last year, Goodluck Jonathan—then Nigeria’s president—proposed to buy U.S.-made Cobra gunship helicopters, with Israel acting as the middleman. But the United States nixed the deal.

Instead, in May 2014 the U.S. Air Force deployed a Reaper drone squadron to Chad, on Nigeria’s eastern border, and flew the Reapers—without its weapons—over Nigeria to help locate Boko Haram fighters.

In April, Michael Lumpkin—the senior Pentagon official for special operations—told a Senate subcommittee that the drone ops in Nigeria were “exerting significant pressure” on Boko Haram. (PDF)

Captain Tamara Fischer Carter, a U.S. Africa Command spokesperson, confirmed that the drones are still flying over Nigeria and feeding intel to officials in Abuja via the U.S. embassy. “Our intent is to build partner capacity in this region so they are more capable of managing the threat posed by Boko Haram,” she told The Daily Beast.

The Reapers weren’t alone. Nigeria has possessed at least two CH-3s—the one that crashed and the second example in the hangar at Yola—plus missiles to arm them and the ground stations to steer the robots via satellite. It’s unclear whether Nigerian operators or Chinese contractors actually controled the drones.

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In any event, with unarmed American robots and armed Chinese models flying top cover, Nigerian troops and warplanes have stepped up their attacks on Boko Haram. In July, air force attack planes bombed Boko Haram positions in Dikwa, a village in Borno state. The air raids “paved the way for the Nigerian army to move in and recapture the town with less resistance,” Naija247news reported.

The air force also destroyed a smuggling outpost on the Nigeria-Cameroon border allegedly supplying fuel to Boko Haram. The Nigerian air arm “was able to achieve the recent feat through its air patrol activities, covering both land and water,” a military spokesperson told a Nigerian news outlet.

In perhaps the most encouraging sign that Nigeria and its drone helpers are making progress against the militants, on Aug. 2 Abuja’s army claimed it had freed 178 hostages, including 101 children, from Boko Haram camps.

Some U.S. officials worry that Chinese drones could beat out American models on the world market and give authoritarian regimes and U.S. rivals access to the same high-tech capabilities that Washington would prefer to belong only to America’s closest allies.

“China is advancing its development and employment of UAVs,” the Pentagon concluded in the latest edition of its official report on Chinese military capabilities. “Some estimates indicate China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land- and sea-based unmanned systems, worth about $10.5 billion, between 2014 and 2023.” (PDF)

The RAND Corporation, a California think tank with close ties to the U.S. Air Force, warned that the spread of Chinese drones “could have worrisome implications for United States.” (PDF)

But in Nigeria, Chinese missile-drones are apparently helping the government beat a militant slavery ring that the United States also wants to defeat. And while the Nigeria war zone gave Beijing’s UAVs their first shot at combat, there are sure to be many more opportunities for robotic warfare in coming years. “China is becoming one of world’s bigger producers and exporters of drones,” Singer said, “so we shouldn’t be surprised to see its systems popping up in more and more war zones around the world.”