Defense News

More Can Be Done to Ban US Government Use of Chinese Drones

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis
An employee shows a Phantom DJI drone at a store in Shanghai on May 27, 2019. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)
An employee shows a Phantom DJI drone at a store in Shanghai on May 27, 2019. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

The recent outage of a Federal Aviation Administration flight system reminds us of the imperative of having a safe and secure airspace over the United States. In this regard, we should welcome congressional inclusion of Section 817 in the recently enacted James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act.

Enjoying bipartisan support, Section 817, which prohibits the Department of Defense and its contractors from using Chinese-made surveillance drones, strengthens Americans’ security in multiple ways.

Thanks to China’s lavish subsidization of its high-tech sector, Chinese manufacturers of unmanned aerial systems can often underprice foreign competitors to build market share. In the United States and other foreign countries, drones by the manufacturer DJI have attracted many consumers due to their low price, ease of use, widespread marketing and lavish lobbying.

Yet, Chinese-made drones are primed with problems. The U.S. Defense Department and other federal and congressional actors have repeatedly raised concerns about how the Chinese government controls even nominally Chinese-owned companies. The ruling Chinese Communist Party controls the government and can compel Chinese companies to share data with the government and the party.

The Washington Post and the IPVM video surveillance research group have extensively analyzed DJI records, Chinese media coverage and other sources. They have found that, while the DJI tries to conceal its ties to the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army, the drone maker receives substantial state funding and support.

The CCP can leverage this funding, data exchanges and other means to shape the companies’ policies to China’s advantage at the expense of the United States. Furthermore, police agencies monitor Uyghurs in the CCP concentration camps in Xinjiang by employing DJI systems.

Chinese companies and the PLA readily exchange foreign technologies to enhance the country’s economic and military competitiveness. These interlocking ties are the foundation of China’s military-civil fusion strategy, in which Chinese companies and other formally civilian Chinese actors augment the PLA by sharing advanced technologies and expertise.

Additionally, the CCP seeks data on foreign as well as Chinese citizens — what they do, how they think, whom they love — to model and manipulate their behavior.

Fears of the security threat presented by DJI drones have been growing. In 2020, the U.S. Commerce Department placed DJI drones on its entity list, which imposes extra licensing requirements for technology transfers to these foreign entities.

In July 2021, the Pentagon issued a special statement reaffirming its view that DJI systems are “potential threats to national security.” In December of that year, the Treasury Department banned U.S. investment in DJI.

Last October, the Defense Department included DJI on its “Chinese military companies” list. This list strives to highlight firms that support the PLA, remove these companies from U.S. supply chains and make the U.S. defense-industrial base more secure. Congress has also been holding recurring investigatory hearings on the issue.

Furthermore, the locally made software in Chinese-made UAS could be hacked or manipulated by the Chinese government or other foreign adversaries. This presents safety and security problems. According to Congressional analyses, DJI drones are frequently hacked to enable them to bypass restricted airspace, such as the no-fly zones around Washington, D.C. YouTube videos explain how to circumvent safeguards such as geofencing to restrict their flying over sensitive areas.

As a result, these drones provide potential platforms for Chinese espionage. Their high-resolution optical and thermal cameras, advanced sensor packages, access to wireless networks, small size, and high maneuverability make them sophisticated systems for spying. Through their frequent overflights of national security and high-tech targets, Chinese UAS can map U.S. critical infrastructure, identify network vulnerabilities for potential exploitation, steal Americans’ intellectual property, and conduct other espionage or cyberattacks.

Referencing these counterintelligence threats, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has correctly noted: “Any technological product with origins in China or Chinese companies holds a real risk and potential of vulnerability that can be exploited both now and in a time of conflict.”

Though nominally recreational systems, the Russian military has employed DJI drones to target Ukrainian civilians and their infrastructure.

The U.S. national security community must eschew CCP-controlled companies and supply chains infected with Chinese products. By embracing Section 817 of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress has substantially advanced U.S. national security interests.

The next step should be to end their use by civilian federal agencies — such as the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of the Interior — along with state and local governments. U.S. taxpayers should not have to purchase the same systems the CCP buys to police Uighurs or kill Ukrainians.

Read in Defense News.