Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
The Chinese military has developed a drone that it hopes will replace human special ops agents for dangerous missions within the next 10 years. Photo: Shutterstock

Drone 007: Chinese military plans to replace human agents with machines in special operations overseas

  • Unlike in the fictional world of James Bond, in real life, dangerous military operations carry high risks for special forces
  • Scientists have been working with the PLA to develop a drone that can complete these missions without putting agents in danger

It is a perilous assignment: slip in unseen, strike hard and slip away again – all without a trace. Such special forces missions are the stuff of James Bond movies, but in the real world they are considerably more challenging to execute.

No matter how exceptional real agents are, they struggle to achieve the invincibility portrayed by 007. And should they fall into enemy hands, it could spell trouble for military planners.

That is why, in the bustling city of Chengdu in southwest China, a unit of the People’s Liberation Army said it has been working closely with a team of scientists to develop drones that will be able to replace humans in complex overseas missions within the next 10 years.
Their unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can fly vast distances, dive deep underwater and lie in wait for long periods of time. At a command, it can spring from the water, race towards its target and then return unseen beneath the waves after delivering its fatal blow.

The Chinese government has always been vocal about its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and the Chinese military is notoriously secretive about its operations overseas.

But in a recent paper published in the Fire Control & Command Control journal, the PLA’s 78092 unit, which is involved in this project, revealed some details about a future hypothetical overseas special operations plan.

Chinese military unveils a plan to replace human special ops agents with drones for secret missions. Photo: PLA Unit 78092

They argued that disclosing this theoretical plan would help Chinese companies, engineers and scientists who are researching and developing new UAVs to better understand the military’s needs and strategic goals.

The operation was set in the year 2035, when a small-scale conflict erupts between China and a neighbouring country. To keep costs down and avoid escalating the conflict, both sides agree to limit their equipment to small arms, including small boats, drones and anti-aircraft guns.
The paper does not name the other country, but it does mention a river that runs along the border between the two, with an average depth of 30 metres (98 feet) and a maximum depth of 40 metres. China shares many such rivers with its neighbours, including the vast and deep Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River, which flows from Tibet into India.

In the scenario, the Chinese military is tasked with a special mission: to strike swiftly and silently at key enemy installations deep behind the lines. Their target, a critical command and supply hub for the opposing forces, lies hidden along a river, some 40km from the front.

For this operation, the Chinese military chooses to employ only drones, but they have some tall demands, according to the researchers.

These drones, purpose-built for special operations, must be capable of operating both alone and in coordinated swarms. They must be able to navigate the river’s depths, avoiding detection while launching torpedoes at enemy patrol boats.


The US ignores Japan’s request to fly Osprey aircraft after deadly crash

The US ignores Japan’s request to fly Osprey aircraft after deadly crash

To remain unseen, they must stay close to the riverbed, staying submerged for long periods and navigating obstacles such as reefs with ease. Once they surface, they must be able to fly at extremely low altitudes, making quick, evasive manoeuvres to avoid enemy fire.

And as they approach their targets, these drones must be able to engage beyond visual range, striking with precision and then disengaging without further human intervention.

Their advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems must allow them to hover over the battlefield after the initial attack, assessing the damage and determining whether further action is required.

If enemy forces attempt to flee, these drones must be capable of pursuing and eliminating them, ensuring a complete victory before returning to Chinese territory.

The PLA team said that the development model for this new UAV drew inspiration from the US military’s approach. China has the world’s largest and most technologically advanced civilian UAV factories, but unlike the US, most Chinese civilian UAV suppliers have not entered the military market.
The Chinese military is embarking on an ambitious plan to initiate an arms race in the UAV domain, aiming to overwhelm competitors with vast numerical superiority, cutting-edge technology and cost advantages, thus pushing them into financial crises.

According to the 78092 unit, the special ops drone project has already landed, and more innovative equipment is on the horizon as China races to meet its growing defence needs.