China’s Drone Swarms Rise to Challenge US Power

China is building one of the world’s largest drone fleets aimed at expanding its military reach in the Pacific and swarming U.S. Navy carriers in the unlikely event of a war, according to a new report.

The Chinese military — known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — envisions its drone swarms scouting out battlefields, guiding missile strikes and overwhelming opponents through sheer numbers. China’s military-industrial complex has created a wide array of homegrown drones to accomplish those goals over the past decade, according to the report released by the Project 2049 Institute on March 11.

“The PLA now fields one of the world’s most expansive UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] fleets,” said Ian Easton and L.C. Russell Hsiao, researchers at the Project 2049 Institute and authors of the new report.

U.S. military forces still operate the largest drone fleet, with at least 679 drones in 2012, according to data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported by the Guardian. But the new Project 2049 Institute report estimates that China had 280 military drones as of mid-2011 — a number that has likely grown since then.

Chinese military drones have already entered the frontlines of China’s territorial disputes with neighboring countries such as Japan by flying maritime patrols over disputed areas. The Project 2049 Institute report warned that China could be tempted to use drones more aggressively without risking human lives, or even consider “plausibly deniable” drone attacks blamed upon mechanical failure or cyberhackers.

Chinese strategists have also discussed using swarms of drones to overwhelm the U.S. Navy’s carrier groups in the unlikely possibility of a shooting war. The drones could act as decoys, use electronic warfare to jam communications and radar, guide missile strikes on carriers, fire missiles at U.S. Navy ships or dive into ships like kamikaze robots. [Video: RoboBees: Design Poses Intriguing Engineering Challenges]

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