Tag Archives: PLA

Evaluating China’s Anti-Ship Drone Swarms

The Project 2049 Institute recently released a report on People’s Republic of China (PRC) UAV advances, with a focus on how those capabilities could be used to threaten U.S. Navy carrier strike groups.  China’s expanding land- and sea-based UAV inventory runs the range from small tactical systems to medium-ranged Predator-class to unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) still under development.  This anti-access/area denial capability, or A2/AD in naval parlance, represents just one of several layers of offensive systems the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is developing to exercise naval hegemony in the Western Pacific. 
 
The report argues that “UAV systems may emerge as the critical enabler for PLA long range precision strike missions within a 3000 kilometer radius of Chinese shores.”  This 3000 km radius represents an area well into the so-called Second Island Chain, control of which is commonly recognized as a long-term strategic goal for the PLA.

China's ASN-229A ISR and Strike UAV, just one of many friendly drones you'll find in the Project 2049 report.
China’s ASN-229A ISR and Strike UAV, just one of many friendly drones you’ll find in the Project 2049 report.

The report details Chinese strategists’ plans to use drones of swarms in a variety of ways to defeat opposing naval forces.  Decoy UAVs would draw fire and reduce the inventories of anti-aircraft missiles.  Electronic warfare (EW) UAVs would jam shipboard radars and anti-radition drones would attack them.  Reconnaissance drones could then cue anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) and armed UAVs in an attempt to overwhelm strike group defenses.

Defense against these swarms could take a number of forms.  First, dispersal of naval forces – over tens, hundreds, and thousands of kilometers – would prevent a drone swarm from doing too much harm to concentrated ship formations, also causing the PLA to prioritize its targets or disperse the swarm, limiting its effectiveness.  In an exchange against large numbers of low-cost drones, the engagement ratio, in both cost and number of weapons, is not favorable to air defense missiles such as those used by Japanese and U.S. Aegis ships.  A return to anti-aircraft cannon may be one option to reverse this asymmetry, though the introduction of directed energy weapons in the place of limited defensive missile inventories might be a better way to handle large numbers of incoming drones.  Interestingly, the U.S. Navy has announced it will deploy a prototype laser system, a previous version of which has been tested against UAVs, on USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf later this year.

It should also be noted that these systems would be susceptible to the same vulnerabilities cited by many observers of U.S. UAV operation: they can be jammed or spoofed, and the satellite or other communications links that control the drones can also be disrupted by various means. Finally, in the spirit of “it takes a network to defeat a network,” China would not have a monopoly on UAV development.  In time, PLA drone swarms would face large numbers of UAVs operated by other navies in the South China Sea.  Expect to see drones develop with air-to-air capabilities, defensive counter-measures, and programming to “sacrifice” themselves to protect surface fleets.

See more on China’s maritime UAV developments here.

This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.

Who’ll get the Lion’s share?

In the last week, during a visit to the People’s Republic of China, Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng En Hen has reaffirmed bilateral military ties between the two countries with his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie. Since the Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation was signed in 2008, there have been regular exchanges between the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and the People’s Liberation Army, port calls, joint courses, seminars, and a counter-terrorism exercise. But China is not the only suitor trying to woo the Lion City-state. Earlier this month, Mr Ng also met with US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, with the two agreeing that America could deploy up to four Littoral Combat Ships out of Singapore on a rotational basis, with the first due to arrive in the second quarter of next year. In addition, its Changi naval base was designed from the outset to accommodate ships up to the size of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, way beyond the country’s own capabilities. With China becoming increasingly assertive towards its neighbours in the first island chain it see as its sphere of influence, followed by America’s pivot towards Asia in support of its regional allies and the advent of Air-Sea Battle to meet the Chinese threat, Singapore may be forced to choose between its two military partners.

Singapore’s Formidable-class stealth frigates – but which side could they end up on?

Though Singapore’s military relationship with the US stretches back further, the country has always had an ethnocentric strategic outlook. At the time of its secession from the Federation of Malaysia on 9 August 1965, Singapore only possessed around 1,000 armed servicemen. This and the republic’s small population of approximately four million, prompted Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to introduce national service from 14 March 1967. Another major factor behind this was that the majority of those personnel, particularly senior officers, we’re Malay and Indian. With Singapore having a Chinese majority population, and with Malaysia seen as the country’s main threat at the time, Malays were excluded from the draft for its first ten years as Chinese filled out the armed forces’ ranks and were swiftly promoted. Even when Malays were included after 1977, they were assigned to the police and civil defence, not combat roles. The Second Minister for Defence, Lee Hsien Loong, stated in 1987 that “If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called to defend the homeland, we do not want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may be in conflict with his religion”. Singapore’s political leaders did not trust Malays to fight against their kith and kin. Should hostilities erupt between the United States and China, can Singapore’s Chinese-dominated armed forces be expected to do the same, and does America need to think more carefully about how far it enters into the Lion’s den?

Dr Daniel Owen Spence is Lecturer in Imperial and International History at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, and publishes on nineteenth and twentieth century maritime history.