High above Yemen’s rebel-held city of Hodeida, a drone controlled by Emirati forces hovered as an SUV carrying a top Shiite Houthi rebel official turned onto a small street and stopped, waiting for another vehicle in its convoy to catch up.
Seconds later, the SUV exploded in flames, killing Saleh al-Samad, a top political figure. The drone that fired that missile in April was not one of the many American aircraft that have been buzzing across the skies of Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001. It was Chinese. Across the Middle East, countries locked out of purchasing U.S.-made drones due to rules over excessive civilian casualties are being wooed by Chinese arms dealers, who are world’s main distributor of armed drones.
“The Chinese product now doesn’t lack technology, it only lacks market share,” said Song Zhongping, a Chinese military analyst and former lecturer at the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force University of Engineering. “And the United States restricting its arms exports is precisely what gives China a great opportunity.” At the start of the year, a satellite passing over southern Saudi Arabia photographed U.S.-made surveillance drones at an airfield, alongside Chinese-manufactured armed ones.
U.S. drones were first used in Yemen to kill suspected al-Qaida militants in 2002. One of the biggest Chinese exports is the Cai-Hong, or Rainbow, series made by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., or CASC, the largest contractor for the Chinese space program. CASC’s CH-4 and CH-5 models are on a par with San Diego-based General Atomics’ Predator and Reaper drones, and much cheaper. Independent analysts say the Chinese models lag behind their American counterparts but the technology is good enough to justify the price tag, which might be half or less. A CASC executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists, said cutting-edge U.S. models like Boeing Co.’s Stingray, introduced this year for the U.S. Navy, still hold a technological advantage.
Since 2014, China has sold more than 30 CH-4’s to countries including Saudi Arabia and Iraq in deals worth over $700 million, according to CASC. Ten countries are currently in negotiations to purchase the CH-4, according to the firm. Last year, China sold to the UAE the Wing Loong II, an armed unmanned aerial vehicle roughly equivalent to the American MQ-9 Reaper. During President Xi Jinping’s five years in power, China has stepped up spending on stealth fighters and aircraft carriers for its own military, while boosting sales of advanced equipment such as attack submarines to close allies like Pakistan.