China’s use of drones in the Sino-Indian border dispute: a concrete example of civil-military integration


In December 2022, the Indian and Chinese armed forces clashed again along the Sino-Indian Himalayan border, causing dozens of injured troops. The two neighbours are fighting over a border that is almost 3,500 kilometres long and, despite the signing of multiple agreements and the creation of coordination mechanisms, incidents are becoming more frequent. Tensions run high on a daily basis; in 2020, a clash resulted in the death of at least 20 Indian and 4 Chinese soldiers.

The Himalayan plateau lies at high altitude, with an average elevation of almost 4,000 metres. In recent years, in order to strengthen its military pre-sence there, China has built a network of modern infrastructure in the two autonomous border regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. The country has also begun to make extensive use of UAVs for a va-riety of missions, and Chinese state media have begun to report widely on the subject. These UAVs are becoming so important that, in 2021, a Chinese legislator — a former commander of a border regiment on the plateau — called for the increased and enhanced use of UAVs, which are essential to the operations of the Chinese military because they can, in his words, “see what troops can’t see, hear what troops can’t hear, and go where troops can’t goLIU Xuanzun, “Chinese legislator urges enhanced UAV usage in border regions”, Global Times, 28 February 2021..

China is the country with the greatest number of UAV development programmesThe UAV Databook, “The Center for the Study of the UAV”, 2019.. Yet, until now, there has been no English-language publication on Chinese UAVs deployed specifically on the borders, in particular the Sino-Indian border. This research note aims to fill this gap by drawing on Chinese sources, particularly in the Chinese language, be they state media articles, scientific publications, or social networks. This research work aims not only to identify the UAVs deployed and the manufacturers involved, but also to better understand the objectives and difficulties encountered by the Chinese authorities in using UAVs within the unique environmental constraints of the Himalayan plateau. Border defence is a specific focus for them due to the complex geographical conditions, poor road networks and problems in supporting military operations there. The use of UAVs therefore lends itself well to the Himalayan topo-graphy and, since the 2017 Doklam incident, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has accele-rated it on the border with India.

In this work, we have identified about forty different UAVs with diverse missions: mainly logistical transport, but also surveillance, artillery observation, mine clearance, and even search and rescue of injured personnel. These are mainly small and medium-sized multi-rotor UAVs, as well as small rotary wing designsThat is, UAVs weighing between 15 and 150 kg, a category defined in the State Council 2021 guidelines on the use of UAVs (无人驾驶航空器系统标准体系建设指南 (2021)).. The vast majority of the UAVs used are built by civilian companies, not military ones, including startups. While well-known manufacturers DJI and AllTech are involved, so are more confidential manufacturers, such as Ziyan, Tuohang and Tiantu, that nonetheless play a key role. These companies illustrate China’s progress in civil-military integration, a national strategy pursued since 2015BONDAZ Antoine, “Un tournant pour l’intégration civilo-militaire en Chine”, Recherches & Documents, FRS, n° 7/2017, October 2017..



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