Sea Logistics

Sustaining China’s Sovereignty Claims: The PLA’s Embrace of Unmanned Logistics


The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has tested the use of unmanned vehicles (UAVs) to perform logistical missions such as transportation and resupply since 2018. In academic explorations of border defense and logistics modernization, PLA logistics officers argue that UAVs can dramatically increase the efficiency of the PLA’s supply chain in addition to improving the military’s ability to supply forces operating in hostile environmental conditions or in contested areas. Such advantages could provide an important advantage to China as it seeks to bolster its military presence in areas of potential crisis such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea.

PLA troops operating in these areas must ensure that their supply chains are robust enough to function in the event of a border skirmish, and at the same time often negotiate difficult or inhospitable terrain. Under normal circumstances, maintaining and expanding operations in these areas would require significant applications of manpower and transportation resources to keep forward-deployed troops well-supplied and in fighting shape.

For these reasons, the authors predict that PLA troops stationed in border regions are likely to serve as early adopters for logistics UAV technology. The introduction of UAVs has the potential to enable the PLA to expand its presence and solidify control along China’s periphery with a comparatively minimal expenditure of logistical resources. UAV deployment in these areas would have significant strategic and operational implications, strengthening China’s contested territorial claims by enabling the PLA to improve its operational tempo and logistics capability.

Mapping the PLA’s Use of Logistics UAVs

According to available reports, the PLA began publicly field-testing UAVs in transportation and resupply roles in early 2018 (see Figure 1).[1] Nearly all of the exercises employed the same baseline scenario: using UAVs to deliver a small quantity of supplies to forward-deployed troops in austere operating environments.

Date Participating Entity Notes
January 2018 PLAAF Logistics Department operating in the Central TC. Elements from the PLAAF partnered with the civilian logistics company Shunfeng Express (顺丰顺丰速运) to undertake a joint exercise focused on the use of logistics UAVs (PRC Ministry of Defense, February 2, 2018). The exercise consisted of two scenarios:  using a UAV to air drop supplies to a simulated damaged radar station, and the delivery of medical supplies to wounded forward-deployed troops.
July 2019 National Defense University Joint Service College Researchers performed an exercise using a “large unmanned transport aircraft” (大型无人运输机) for a long-range resupply mission (Xinhua, July 9, 2019).
July 2020 PLA Army Service Academy Troops attached to the academy conducted a pilot exercise simulating the use of UAVs alongside powered exoskeletons to deliver supplies to a forward area under artillery fire (China Military Online, July 25, 2020).
July 2020 N/A PLA units undertook an exercise using UAVs to deliver medical supplies in high-altitude plateau areas (ST Daily, July 9, 2020).
September 2020 PLA Navy units operating in the Southern TC PLA Navy troops used more than 20 drones as part of an exercise simulating the resupply of troops stationed in “mountainous island areas.” (CCTV, September 16, 2020)
November 2020 PLA Army units stationed in Tibet MR PLA units conducted an exercise using 9 drones to simulate the delivery of food supplies to troops under artillery fire (China Military Online, November 9, 2020).
November 2020 PLA Air Force units operating in the Central TC PLAAF units conducted an exercise using UAVs to air-drop ammunition and medical supplies (China Military Online, November 3, 2020).

Figure 1: Timeline of Logistics UAV Deployment

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