December 13, 2017

The Human Factor in the “Unmanned” Systems of the People's Liberation Army

By Elsa B. Kania

Even as the character of conflict is transformed by the advent of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) on the battlefield, the human factor is no less important in this machine age of warfare. However, the typical terminological characterization of military drones as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) reflects a tendency to neglect those responsible for the operation of these uninhabited systems.[1] Ironically, the use of highly automated weapons and most larger UAVs, such as the Predator, often require the involvement of more humans than the typical manned aircraft.[2] Even while adopting the parlance Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), the U.S. military initially struggled with the underlying human capital challenges associated with these systems.[3] For instance, the reported resistance of pilots to taking on the role of UAV operator and an occasional tendency to discount these drone pilots have contributed to difficulties with recruitment and retention. As the U.S. military’s experience has thus demonstrated, the capacity to recruit, educate, train, and retain an adequate number of UAV pilots, operators, and relevant personnel can be a critical element of a military’s capacity to engage in high-tempo operations with unmanned systems in a conflict scenario. China’s President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping himself has highlighted the importance of “cultivating good personnel” given the importance of UAVs on the modern battlefield.[4] To evaluate the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) approach to unmanned and autonomous systems, it is critical to consider this critical human factor.[5]

The PLA’s history with the development and employment of unmanned systems dates back decades. Initially, China had acquired its first UAV, the Lavochkin (La-17), a fairly unsophisticated radio-controlled target drone, from the Soviet Union by the 1950s.[6] After the Sino-Soviet split and resulting withdrawal of USSR military support, the PLA Air Force decided to develop its own unmanned systems in the late 1950s and early 1960s.[7,8] This motivated the production of the PLA’s first notionally indigenous UAV, the Chang Kong-1 (“Vast Sky,”长空一号, CK-1) UAV, a radio-controlled target drone based on a reverse engineering of the La-17, which was first successfully tested in December 1966.[9] In the 1960s, the PLA also recovered U.S. AQM-34 Firebee drones that were shot down in North Vietnam and reverse engineered the Wu Zhen-5 (无侦-5, WZ-5).[10[ By the 1980s, China developed the Cai Hong-1 (“Rainbow,” 彩虹一号, CH-1), a high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAV.[11] During these years, the PLA Air Force’s early testing and development of UAVs took place at a remote base in the Gobi Desert, and the PLA Air Force engineers involved in this process included Zhao Xu (赵煦), hailed as China’s father of UAVs.[12] In more recent years, China’s success in the indigenous development of UAVs—and emergence as a major exporter—has been celebrated as a major accomplishment. Chinese UAVs, such as the CH-3, 4, and 5 and the Wing Loong I and II, which are roughly analogous to the Predator and Reaper respectively, have proliferated widely, including throughout the Middle East and in Central and Southeast Asia.[13]

Read the full commentary in Strategy Bridge.

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