UK eyes Chinese drone parts for Ukraine

UK eyes Chinese drone parts for Ukraine

Updated: 11:41 a.m., May 1.

Britain is open to the idea of supplying made-in-China drone components to Ukraine, a UK official said Tuesday. It’s a notion that reflects Ukrainian pragmatism but runs counter to U.S. policy.

“We are less concerned by…Chinese componentry” within drones, the UK official told reporters in Washington, D.C.. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive topics.

In February, Britain and Latvia announced they would spend $252 million to buy first-person-view, or FPV, drones for Ukraine, which—like their Russian foes—use them extensively as improvised guided munitions. Ukrainian FPV strikes took out over two-thirds of Russian tanks in the last several months, Foreign Policy reported in April.

The UK’s willingness to buy-China contrasts with U.S. policy, which has limited its own drone donations to Western, primarily U.S.-made systems off a Pentagon whitelist. The Defense Innovation Unit’s Blue UAS list aims to ensure that U.S. forces use drones that support U.S. industry, spur American innovation, and won’t send data back to China.

But at least some Blue List drones have fared poorly against Russia’s electronic warfare. That’s hardly unique to U.S. gear; Ukraine’s many commercially bought Chinese drones are also regularly taken down by Russian EW. But the U.S. drones cost three to five times as much as comparable Chinese models, a Defense Innovation Unit spokesperson told Defense One by email.

The UK official said, “It is about balance. The UK is open about sourcing for Ukraine’s needs, while the US is primarily focused on Western drone production, but everything we do is with consultation and in lockstep with our partners.”

The UK works closely with the U.S. to deconflict aid packages and make sure each country is not duplicating the efforts of the others.

“There’s a lot of coordination that goes on,” a second UK official said. “I speak to the American team once a week, twice a week,” for low-level deconfliction.

Britain’s choice is informed by Ukrainian requirements, the UK official added, which favor tactically useful equipment over less effective and expensive Western products. 

“I’d rather not pay ten times the amount” for an inferior product just because it had no Chinese components, said the UK official. 

U.S. soldiers have similarly noted that the cost of Blue UAS drones makes it harder to acquire them.  

The Western official did not say where Britain would get the drones for Ukraine, but implied that Western funds might eventually be used to support domestic Ukrainian production of drones. Ukraine has a large cottage drone industry that uses Chinese components to make FPVs.

The Ukrainians “want us to enable them to produce their systems, ultimately,” the official said, meaning defense systems in general.

Britain might eventually contribute technology to drone development, but likely in areas where they could provide superior equipment, such as in software or radios.

The speed at which the battlefield is changing is also pushing Britain to make sure equipment undergoes strenuous testing to ensure that Ukraine is not left fixing problems in the field. 

“We must do everything that we can to get it to the highest level” before deploying systems, the official said, noting that many companies had been surprised by the number of issues their weapons faced when put to the test. 

“There have been many large, well known companies that have been shown up,” the official said. 

Russian countermeasures can be defeated by modifying Western weapons, they added — but it depends on information being speedily passed between Ukrainian operators and Western arms makers.

Ukrainian operators and Western companies “basically need to work together,” the official said.  

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