Espreso. Global

China restricts exports of drone components: how it will affect war in Ukraine

4 October, 2023 Wednesday

Ukrainians have learned how to turn ordinary Chinese drones into combat drones, but new Chinese rules restricting the export of drone components have hindered this

The New York Times writes about the issue.

Thus, a soldier of the 92nd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces told how he turns amateur drones into lethal weapons in a basement 8 km from the front line. The soldier attaches a modified battery to the quadcopter so that it can fly even further. Then the drone will be equipped with homemade shells to be dropped into the trenches of the Russian invaders or on their tanks.

"At night we do bombing missions, and during the day we think about how to get new drones," says Oles Maliarevych, an officer in the 92nd Mechanized Brigade.

The publication notes that more than any conflict in human history, the fighting in Ukraine is a war of drones. And while Iran and Turkey produce large, military-grade drones used by Russia and Ukraine, the cheap consumer drones that have become ubiquitous on the front line largely come from China, the world’s biggest maker of those devices. This has given Beijing a hidden influence in a war that is waged partly with consumer electronics, the NYT notes.

At the same time, the Ukrainian military, which had learned to convert drones into combat ones and established a supply chain, suddenly faced obstacles as new Chinese rules restricting the export of drone components came into effect on September 1. This, in turn, led to a decline in sales.

"We’re examining every possible way to export drones from China, because whatever one may say, they produce the most there," said a military officer who helps source drone supplies for his unit.

In recent years, Chinese companies such as DJI, EHang, and Autel have significantly increased their drone production. They now produce millions of aerial gadgets a year for amateur photographers, outdoor enthusiasts and professional videographers, far outpacing other countries. According to the DroneAnalyst research group, China's largest drone manufacturer, DJI, holds more than 90% of the global consumer drone market.

Recently, however, Chinese companies have cut back sales of drones and components to Ukrainians. The Chinese firms still willing to sell often require buyers to use complicated networks of intermediaries, similar to those Russia has used to get around American and European export controls, the publication points out.

It is noted that some Ukrainians have been forced to beg, borrow and smuggle what’s needed to make up for the gadgets being blown out of the sky. Many fear that China’s new rules restricting the sale of drone components could worsen Ukrainian supply chain woes heading into the winter and play into Russia's hands. Ukraine loses an estimated 10,000 drones a month, according to the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think tank.

The publication analyzed trade data and found that direct deliveries of drones by Chinese companies to Ukraine from January to June this year amounted to just over $200,000, while Russia received at least $14.5 million in direct deliveries of drones from Chinese trading companies during the same period.

A war of innovation

One August morning, dozens of Ukrainian soldiers from four different units were training with a new type of military equipment - converted agricultural drones called "the bat".

These unmanned vehicles flew over a cornfield, dropping bottles filled with sand onto tarps that served as targets. Later, the guys returned to their units, attaching 20-kilogram shells to the drones that could be aimed at tanks.

The hulking rotor-powered bombers were made by Reactive Drone, a Ukrainian company that owes its existence to Chinese industrial policy. The firm was founded in 2017 by Oleksii Kolesnyk and his friends after Chinese subsidies led to a glut of drone components being made there. Mr. Kolesnyk took advantage of that to source parts for his own agricultural drones, which he then sold to farmers who used them to spray pesticides in eastern Ukraine.

But after Russia's full-scale invasion, everything changed. Oleksii Kolesnyk returned to Ukraine from Romania and converted his agricultural drones into military drones. The drones that his team repurposed, with the ability to inspect targets from a bird's eye view and drop shells on them, became in demand at all frontline locations.

In the war’s first weeks, Ukrainian soldiers relied on the Mavic, a quadcopter produced by DJI. With its strong radio link and easy-to-use controls, the Mavic became as important and ubiquitous as the Starlink satellites, which help soldiers communicate.

However, in April 2022, DJI announced that it would cease its business in Russia and Ukraine. This led to the closure of its flagship stores in these countries and the termination of most direct sales. Volunteers began to bring drones mainly from Europe, while the Russian Federation has established supplies through friendly countries.

Oleksii Kolesnyk said that his company in Dnipro now receives components mainly through his personal connections with Chinese factories. He fears that new Chinese regulations may make it more complicated to obtain night vision cameras needed for the new drone, which will strike in the dark.

"Even when you see labels like America or Australia on a component, it’s still all manufactured in China. To make something that could effectively replace China, it’s really close to impossible," the entrepreneur said.

Today, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are also actively using F.P.V. (First Person View), devices that are an affordable alternative to heavy military weapons. They allow remote control of drones using special virtual-reality-like goggles.

These drones and their components are manufactured by Chinese companies such as DJI, Autel, and RushFPV, and can be purchased in small quantities. The military says that the use of these drones is like fishing - it requires patience. Less than a third of attacks hit their target, but there are cases where a $500 drone destroys a $1 million weapon system.

Ukrainian suppliers say that the military needs about 30,000 of these devices per month. The government plans to purchase 100,000 of these devices by the end of the year.

Domestic production of drones

All summer, the long-range drone program had terrorized Moscow. Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov told reporters that a lot of effort has been put into this. This refers to the creation of the latest Ukrainian drones, known as the drone army. According to the official, problems with Chinese suppliers have not generally become an obstacle for Ukrainian manufacturers - they find parts for drones in the United States and Europe.

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