US Faces National Security Challenges as China Dominates Global UAV Market

The United States is grappling with significant national security challenges as China establishes its dominance in the global unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market. Chinese companies, benefiting from unfair trading practices and government support, have taken control of the UAV industry, valued at $31 billion in 2023. This dominance poses multiple threats to US national security.

On the battlefield, Chinese UAVs provide the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with potential advantages in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike capabilities. Additionally, Chinese commercial drones operating in the United States and allied countries raise concerns about the collection of sensitive data, which could be exploited by the PLA to target critical infrastructure and launch cyber or kinetic military attacks.

Furthermore, China’s control of the global UAV market creates supply-chain vulnerabilities for the free world, as it becomes dependent on an autocratic adversary for access to drones with both civilian and military applications. This dependency could be exploited by China to exert influence and strengthen military ties with other nations.

Chinese-built drones also raise human rights concerns, as they are used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to surveil its own citizens and assist in the mistreatment of the Uyghur minority.

To address these challenges, the United States and its allies have taken initial steps, such as banning the use of Chinese drones and enacting tariffs. However, a comprehensive strategy is needed to protect national security interests and promote the development of alternative drone manufacturers in the United States and trusted allies.

The proposed “protect-promote-align” strategy includes introducing new restrictions on the use of Chinese drones, promoting domestic drone manufacturing, and aligning policies to advance a whole-of-free-world approach to the global drone competition. These measures aim to ensure the United States and its allies can maintain security at home, deter adversaries, and benefit from emerging technologies critical to twenty-first-century defense.

Efforts are underway in Congress, federal agencies, and the Department of Defense to address the challenges posed by China’s dominance in the UAV market. However, a comprehensive and strategic framework is still needed to effectively counter the national security threats.

By implementing the proposed strategy, the United States and its allies can protect sensitive data, strengthen their position in the UAV market, and assert global leadership in this critical technology. This will be crucial in maintaining their innovation edge and prevailing in the strategic competition against revisionist autocracies like China.

Deborah Lee James, Atlantic Council Board Director and former Secretary of the Air Force, emphasizes the importance of adopting this strategy to secure national security interests and benefit from the emerging technology that will play a significant role in defense in the twenty-first century.