“Chinese drones are among the most sophisticated in the world and probably only slightly behind US military drones which are generally not available for sale. Given their proven value on the battlefield, the combination of high quality and lower cost make Chinese drones very attractive for militaries in the [Middle East] region.”
Timothy Heath, Senior Researcher, Rand
Over the past three years, I have written multiple missives about the military changes that will be prompted by drone technology. This is how I began the last drone-related missive: “In case you haven’t noticed, the increasing automation and efficiency of killing machines has prompted a tension in military decision-making: how do we preserve traditional American values of limiting quasi-battlefield civilian casualties in a techno-world that is becoming increasingly hostile to everything we stand for?”
The problem I identified in that missive is now growing exponentially as drones grow more sophisticated, more lethal, more prevalent, and more essential to conflict planners of all stripes. Let me provide examples from today’s headlines. Reports that a team of Chinese military scientists at the PLA Strategic Support Force Information Engineering University have developed a microwave source for drones that is more powerful than anything available worldwide. Russia and Ukraine exchanged drone attacks overnight with the Russian defense ministry claiming they shot down 41 Ukrainian drones (including deep into eastern Crimea) and the Ukrainian air forces claiming they intercepted 10 of 17 drones fired by Russian forces. In the resumed Israel-Hamas war, both sides are using drones on a constant basis to collect intelligence and inflict lethal force.
The use of drones (increasingly enhanced with AI capabilities) is not only a ubiquitous feature of today’s battlefield, but also representative of technology’s steady intrusion into our daily lives—increasingly used as monitoring tools for law enforcement agencies, the delivery of groceries, meals and on-line purchases, and the go-to “toy” present for under the Christmas tree.
Please let me discuss three brief case studies to make my point (recognizing that there are almost certainly many more). All three involve conflict situations that have emerged in the last year. Each case study shows how battlefield tactics now incorporating drone technology are prompting major geopolitical and geostrategic changes (and a range of unintended consequences) that are rapidly outgrowing the legal and technological strictures previously sought to be imposed by the United States. Furthermore, as drones become increasingly essential to global war planners, terror groups, and insurrectionists, it has forced our own country to accelerate the development of automated “killer drones”—a technological leap into the unknown we sought to avoid.
My first case study is taken from the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War (now heading toward 650 days old). Both sides are using drones in a way, and at a pace, scarcely imaged a decade ago. In addition to the example mentioned above, on one day alone in late November, Russia launched an aerial attack on Kyiv—the Ukrainian capital—involving at least 75 Iranian-made Shahed-class drones. Minimal physical damage was done, according to various sources, because very few of the drones were able to penetrate Ukrainian air defenses (in one report, at least 71 were shot down), but the size of the attack itself marked a major escalation of the conflict. The attack (involving drones and cruise missiles) began at 0400 in the morning last Saturday and lasted for six hours, knocking out power to parts of the city. In addition to Kyiv, at least five other areas were reportedly targeted. Moreover, the attack was apparently designed to coincide with Ukraine’s “Holodomor Memorial Day” in remembrance of millions of Ukrainians who perished in a manmade famine orchestrated by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin starting in 1932.
Likewise, Ukrainian leaders are also increasingly relying on drones. According to reports in a series of Telegram updates, Russian military authorities and Moscow’s mayor claimed at least 24 Ukrainian drones were downed over Moscow and three Russian provinces. Moreover, even Russian soldiers using the latrine or relieving themselves in the woods have become targets for drones. Is nothing sacred?
In my second brief case study, the use of drone technology in the Middle East has accelerated dramatically because of the Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza as well as the ongoing tensions along the northern border with Hezbollah, and the use of drones by Iranian proxies against Israeli and U.S. targets throughout the Middle East.
And the drone contagion is spreading.
In late November, for example, to capitalize on these developments, over 30 Chinese military and defense contractors showcased their products at the Dubai Airshow, with a noticeable focus on unmanned aerial vehicles. Of particular interest for regional Arab buyers are Chinese drones such as the Wing-Loong I and II, and the CH-3 and CH-4. Many of these buyers are also reportedly interested in a future drone platform, the CH-5, made by Beijing’s state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, which bills the soon-available drone as the “world’s largest strike-capable drone with a 60-hour endurance and a 1,000 kg. (2,204 lb.) payload. Moreover, many experts see China’s prolific civilian drone sector as an important backstop for its military production program: such plans include, among others, using Shenzhen-based DJI, the world’s largest commercial drone maker, which boasts of at least 50 percent of the U.S. drone market. Chinese arms marketing efforts are designed to take advantage, in part, of the success of drones in the Gaza fighting. Drones played a key role in the brutal cross-border invasion by Hamas on October 7, 2023. At the start of the attack, Hamas gained a key advantage by using small commercial drones to drop grenades on Israeli communication towers and video surveillance stations, disrupting the Israel Defense Forces’ ability to relay information as Hamas fighters rushed across the border. According to one commentator, the communications targets were “chosen with such precision because other Hamas drones had been collecting detailed intelligence on Israeli defenses. Hamas also used drones to disable the IDF’s remote-controlled machine guns that were mounted along the border and to drop grenades on tanks and ambulances.”
In hindsight, Hamas took advantage of the Israeli over-confidence in its border security technology, the pulling back of human intelligence agents in Gaza, and the lack of a human military presence along the border to spring the surprise invasion.
Since then, Israel has been leveraging its technological advantage (including drones) to eliminate the threat posed by Hamas. Today, Israeli technical and monitoring experts—operating out of covert locations in the Negev Desert—have created a sprawling technological nerve center real-time map showing the location of all Israeli and Palestinian (Hamas and its allies) forces. To do this, they accumulate and sort through thousands of battlefield data points from drones, jet fighters, naval ships, tanks, and soldiers that allowed Israel’s Givati Brigade to carry out a sweeping takeover of a “swath” of Hamas’s strongholds and tunnels in Gaza City in less than three weeks with fewer than 50 deaths before the temporary ceasefire.
My third case study showing how today’s drones could be changing the geopolitical landscape comes from an unlikely place: the exotic and mysterious country of Myanmar (Burma). As many of you may recall, Myanmar—under the grip of a junta military dictatorship for decades—is one of the most fascinating countries I have ever visited.
To set the stage, I’m not sure anyone, inside or outside the intelligence community, really understands Myanmar these days, much less the enigma of the junta’s various relationships with ethnic groups inside its borders. The government officially recognizes, for example, as many as 135 indigenous ethnic groups grouped into eight national races: Burman, Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine (Muslim), and Shan. The military ended a brief flirtation with democracy with a coup in 2021; in fact, the military junta leadership, in one form or another, has ruled the country with an iron fist for over 50 years. But today, by all accounts, it is fighting for its life as a civil war is raging from one end of the country to another.
How did this happen?
Although details remain sketchy, it appears that the beginning of the insurrection can be traced to a nighttime bloodbath a little over a month ago at the “Crouching Tiger Villa”—a shadowy cybercrime complex—located in a lawless corner of northeast Myanmar. The criminal enterprise operated in the Kokang capital which was, in turn, dominated by ethnic warlords allied to the ruling junta. In addition, the Villa was only 10 miles from the Chinese border and close to the Thai border. It is hard to describe what a “no-man’s land” this area is.
It appears that the cybercrime activities conducted at the Villa, over time, became a huge embarrassment for Beijing’s rulers. Why? Simply put, most of the fraud victims were Chinese citizens located in China itself. Moreover, the complex was run by Chinese crime gangs who greased the palms of junta and border authorities to operate with impunity.
Get the picture?
At any rate, China made repeated demands to Myanmar’s military leaders to rein in the activity. However, even though the junta leaders depend heavily on Beijing for weapons, diplomatic support, and financial underpinning, (in fact Beijing is the only friend Myanmar has) the generals were either too weak or unwilling to curb the illicit activity. So, China took matters into its own hands and conducted cross-border operations to press local leaders to hand over suspects to Chinese police. As many as 4,500 individuals, according to some accounts, were arrested or repatriated.
Back to the “Crouching Tiger Villa.” When the crime bosses tried to transfer trafficked workers, most of whom were Chinese, to another compound many took advantage of the situation to flee. A border guard force set up by the military opened fire killing as many as 60 people, including—so the rumor has it—as many as four undercover agents from China investigating the Crouching Tiger crime family.
Beijing’s leaders were understandably upset.
A week later, the Brotherhood Alliance, a new coalition of three ethnic armies launched a shock offensive—now called “Operation 1027”—against Myanmar army (Tatmadaw) military positions in the area. In northern Shan state, for example, 100 military outposts were quickly overrun and border towns essential to the cross-border trade were seized. Some observers say none of this would have been possible without Beijing’s guiding hand.
As of this writing, the civil war in Myanmar continues.
Okay Jeemes, love the jungle account from what we used to call the “Golden Triangle” with its drug trade. These days, hacking can be as profitable as drugs.
But what about drones?
In late November, a Myanmar military spokesman claimed a morning drone attack by insurgent ethnic forces destroyed half of a convoy of some 250 cargo trucks carrying goods to China and stranded by the fighting with ethnic groups. The brazen attack was alleged to be the most dramatic act taken since the beginning of coordinated attacks by the self-styled Three Brotherhood Alliance of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.
There were, interestingly enough, no details about the drones.
A representative of the ethnic coalition denied responsibility and blamed it on a Myanmar Tatmadaw act of sabotage.
The event—like Myanmar itself—remains shrouded in mystery. (For an account of that night at the “Crouching Tiger Villa” and the civil war in Myanmar that has ensued, see Philip Sherwill’s account from Bangkok, “Bloodbath at Crouching Tiger Villa: a new chapter in Myanmar’s civil war,” The Sunday Times (London), Nov. 18, 2023).
Drones in the jungle? Civil war in Myanmar? Cybercrime dens run by Chinese crime groups (perhaps throw in a secret society or two)? Modern technology in the hands of ethnic insurrectionists? All unfolding while China lurks in the background playing both sides against each other.
It really does have the feel of a seamy setting for a future novel, or at least a chapter or two.