News analysis

A swarm of drones flies over the Pacific from the night sky.

Covered in darkness and less than 100 miles off the coast of California, they chase U.S. Navy ships in groups of fours and sixes. They patrol the bows of ships, gathering intelligence to give to faceless lords.

They match the speed of naval ships, flying seamlessly in low visibility for up to four hours at a time. Careful crew of ships have no idea where they came from or what their purpose is.

This is not the storyline of a new spy thriller but a series of real events that took place in July 2019.

Cold skirmishes raised alarms throughout the navy and brought forward an investigative mechanism made up of elements from the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and FBI. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Commander of the Pacific Fleet were placed preliminary with updates on the situation.

“If the drones were not operated by US forces, these incidents represent a significant security breach,” said an investigative report based on the ship’s records.

Still, the nature of the drone, where it came from and who deployed it remained a mystery for more than two years.

However, a new investigation report published by The Drive in June shed light on the incidents, which involved at least eight skirmishes involving several unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that were previously referred to in the press only as UFOs.

The report, based on newly acquired naval content through several requests for freedom of information law, shows the launch point of the drone as a civilian bulk carrier operating in the area at the time. The ship, MV Bass Strait, is owned and operated by the flagged Pacific Basin from Hong Kong.

“The Navy has assessed that commercial cargo ships are using drones to monitor naval vessels,” the report said. During its maiden operational voyage, the ship may have been linked to previously unknown events in March and April 2019, including “intelligence gathering operations” targeting the USS Zumwalt, America’s most advanced surface fighter.

“Important naval assets are being actively monitored where they train and use their most sensitive systems, often very close to the U.S. coast,” the report said.

On June 18, 2019, a model of the FL-71 drone appeared at the Chinese Defense Information Equipment and Technology Exhibition in Beijing. (Getty Images by Wang Zhao / AFP)

China’s growing drone force

It is too early to say exactly what the relationship between the Bass Strait, the Pacific Basin and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is. Nonetheless, drones have a central role in the next phase of modern warfare, and the incident underscores how they are already shaping the battlefield and intelligence gathering process.

While this is happening, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is making big bets on drone warfare. From cheap and affordable commercial quadcopters to resource-heavy high-altitude long-endurance drones, the regime has invested heavily over every decade.

Indeed, the CCP and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), have undertaken numerous UAV projects since the early 2000s. However, during the tenure of CCP leader Xi Jinping, the first appearance of a large-scale Chinese-made stealth drone took place.

Probably based on data obtained from Iran of advanced American drones in 2011, China’s “Sharp Sword” was just the first of many advanced UAVs to be built with the help of foreign technology integrated as part of the government’s extensive technology theft program.

Since then, the CCP has used dozens of state-owned corporations to fund dozens of variants of UAVs that also build royal space and missile technology. From large combat drones like the Sharp Sword to small quadcopter drones seen near California to rocket-powered supersonic vehicles aimed at collecting target information from the sky, CCP buys everything related to drones.

Moreover, CCP is already building its drone capabilities in the spectrum of its military assets, deploying those capabilities in the most competitive regions in the world.

China’s third and newest aircraft carrier, Fujian, is expected to host a variety of drones. Its electromagnetic catapult system will prove invaluable for quickly launching drones of different weights with adjustable torque.

The effort may be based on operational lessons learned over the years, as China’s second aircraft carrier, Shandong, appeared on its flight deck in early June this year with a small fleet of “commercial or commercially-derived drones.” For a report analysis of images appearing on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.

“[The images] Underline the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s ever-increasing efforts to develop and field a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles, including aircraft that can work together in a swarm of networks and often focus on playing a variety of roles in the maritime area, “the report said.

If that’s not enough to underline the government’s ambition to dominate strategic space with a new, drone-first approach to military participation, now is Zhu Hai Yun’s case.

The Zhu Hai Yun is a 290-foot marine research ship designed to deploy underwater and air drones for a variety of purposes. The ship is also a drone and can either be controlled remotely by a pilot or left to navigate autonomously in the open sea.

In the words of its creator, it is “the world’s first intelligent unmanned system mother ship.”

And although Beijing has officially described that motherhood as a maritime research tool, a report by the South China Morning Post acknowledges that the ship does indeed organize military capabilities that can “prevent, encircle and expel offensive targets.”

The news is likely to upset the US military leadership, which is unlikely to deploy such a ship for another six years.

Watching, learning, preparing

The rapid development of China’s military drones has also led to an increase in international drone-related incidents.

Epoch Times photo
China’s HSU001 underwater drones are seen during a military parade on October 1, 2019 in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (Via Greg Baker / AFP Getty Images)

In August 2021, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces led several types of fighter jets over several days to intercept PLA drones flying south of Okinawa. The drone, comparable to the Predator and Reaper drones of the United States, was believed to be gathering tactical intelligence on the Miyako Strait, providing the PLA with a key point of entry into the Pacific and a home to a growing Chinese population. Military trips of the last decade.

The incident serves as a poignant reminder of what much of China’s drone fleet does: secure vital strategic intelligence for coordination of military actions.

And the same issue brings back to the issue that several groups of drones launched from Hong Kong cargo ships were spying on U.S. Navy ships off the coast of California.

If such actions were directly or indirectly linked to the broader military-security apparatus of the Chinese communist government, what would be the ultimate goal of the assembled intelligence? What is action in “active intelligence”?

To this question, an analysis found that the 2019 “opposition drones” were intended to “stimulate America’s most capable air defense systems and collect extremely high-quality electronic intelligence data on them.”

“By gathering comprehensive electronic intelligence information on these systems, resistance and electronic warfare strategies can be developed to disrupt or defeat them,” the report said. “Capabilities can be accurately estimated and even cloned and maneuvers can be recorded and exploited.”

“It was likely to help the swarm absorb or absorb another nearby platform, it’s all sensitive … data on the most capable warships on Earth and in the very near range.”

In short, the drone was achieving two things. The first is the Blanket Intelligence, assembled from close surveillance on U.S. naval ships. The other was learning what the American response would be and what that response would be.

Thus, drones were luring U.S. naval ships, soaking up intelligence about their response (or lack thereof) to future actions that would not only inform the Chinese military about the technical features of U.S. ships, but how to handle their crew and crew. Protocols for learning how US forces behave in conflict.

To win the next battle

Such tools have real implications for the United States, its allies and partners, and the larger liberal international system. Democratic Taiwan, which has maintained its true independence since 1949, is probably nowhere near as threatened as the CCP invasion.

Despite that independence, and the CCP never ruling the island, the regime has made the forced annexation of Taiwan with the mainland the focus of its current focus. The drone, it seems, will play a central role in that effort.

In late 2021, the PLA launched a small aircraft carrier designed to deploy and recover drones. Such staging vehicles are designed to work with surface fighters to disrupt military operations in the maritime area by making them less effective by swarming or distracting enemy targets.

Epoch Times photo
1 Oct. Protesters pass horns in front of the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco to protest the Chinese Communist Party on China’s National Day in 2020. (Elaine Engie / The Epoch Times)

A test of China’s drone capabilities by The Drive found that “a variety of drone fleets are more likely to be a factor in future conflicts in which China itself may be involved, even if they are operated by Chinese forces or other parties.”

The report said that such drone technology would “have decisive advantages in situations revolving around Taiwan’s defense against Chinese aggression.”

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the government will focus so much strategic attention on numerous drone types for military use.

Indeed, according to the results of a war game organized by the US Air Force, China will deploy not thousands but hundreds of drones in autonomous squads when invading Taiwan. Designed to collaborate with other drones in the network, such swarms offer both flexibility and unparalleled offensive capability through China’s many conventional weapons.

This is especially true considering China’s strategic ambitions to get the United States out of the Indo-Pacific and away from defending Taiwan.

However, not everything is hopeless for Taiwan and the United States. Indeed, after years of war games in which the United States inflicted heavy losses on Taiwan’s fictitious defense, the United States won a definite victory in the most recent Wargame in 2021.

The key to victory in repelling the CCP attack on Taiwan? Drone’s own fleet.

As one summary puts it, “Even by the best US think tanks and the Pentagon, swarm capabilities are seen as so serious for future conflicts that they could be decisive in a major peer-to-peer war over Taiwan.”

The first thing that should be on the minds of strategists everywhere is that the US Air Force fought its imaginary war with China with imaginary power. I.e., which contained drone technology that the United States has not actually yet deployed.

Andrew Thornbrook


Andrew Thornbrook is a reporter for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues, focusing on defense, military developments and national security. He holds a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.