Some Chinese-Made Drones Cleared By Pentagon For U.S. Government Use

A report has cleared some Chinese drones for government use, but questions still remain about the security surrounding foreign-made technology.

DJI Drones Above Pentagon
Public Domain

For years, members of Congress, the Department of Defense, and even the White House, among others, have raised security concerns surrounding the use of foreign-made drones, especially ones built in China. At least some of those fears may have been unfounded, however, according to a new analysis conducted by the Pentagon. A report issued in May cleared the use of some drones made by Chinese manufacturer Da Jiang Innovations, better known by the acronym DJI, for use by the U.S. government. Nevertheless, many American officials believe these threats remain and are pressing, and must be addressed.

According to a summary of the report reviewed by The Associated Press, as well as other outlets, the Pentagon found no evidence of backdoor exploits or harmful software in two drone models made by DJI specifically for the U.S. government. “DJI Government Edition versions that were tested, show no malicious code or intent and are recommended for use by government entities and forces working with US services,” the summary reportedly says, though the bulk of the report remains classified. When reached by The Associated Press, the report’s author, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Adam Prater, who is assigned to U.S. Army Special Operations Command, declined to comment and said he was not authorized to speak to the media. 

Wikimedia Commons

A DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter

There are growing fears about potential backdoor exploits being integrated into the electronic components of various Chinese-made products, including reports about computer chips that may have been tampered with. This, in turn, has led many U.S. lawmakers and military leaders to raise questions about whether drones manufactured in China might be used to transfer sensitive data from inside the United States to that country's intelligence agencies or the People's Liberation Army (PLA). DJI, based in China's Shenzhen province, produces some 80% of the world’s commercial drones, and many of these end up in the fleets of U.S. government agencies and departments. Nearly every list of best-selling or best-performing drones ranks DJI models among the top, if not the top across the board.

Despite the May 6 report issued by the Pentagon, which downplays the potential threat that DJI drones may pose, Congress is still considering a ban on foreign drone technologies. A bill introduced by Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, would, if passed, institute a ban on U.S. government acquisitions of drones manufactured in China, as well as other “covered foreign entities.” The bill, titled the "American Security Drone Act of 2021" defines those entities as:

(A) An entity included on the Consolidated Screening List.

(B) Any entity that is subject to extrajudicial direction from a foreign government, as determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security.

(C) Any entity the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense, determines poses a national security risk.

(D) Any entity domiciled in the People's Republic of China or subject to influence or control by the Government of the People Republic of China or the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China, as determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security.

(E) Any subsidiary or affiliate of an entity described in subparagraphs (A) through (D).

Independent think tanks have issued their own analyses that support the bill’s aim, with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies asserting that “the companies that DoD has listed so far represent just the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to ties between Chinese technology firms and the PLA. Similar concerns have had far-reaching effects, as was the case in 2020 when the United States almost blocked the future deployments of two U.S. Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighter squadrons to the United Kingdom due to worries over Chinese-made telecommunications technologies being rolled out across that country and the potential for information-gathering it posed.

DJI

DJI flagship store in Shenzhen, China

For these reasons, the U.S. Army banned all DJI-made drones in 2017. DJI executives pushed back on the allegations at the time, stating that none of those claims were “accompanied by evidence or analysis demonstrating that there's a factual basis behind the allegation.” Nevertheless, in January 2021, the White House issued an executive order that sought to mitigate the use of drones that might “present unacceptable risks and are manufactured by, or contain software or critical electronic components from, foreign adversaries.” Specific adversary nations listed in the report included North Korea, Russia, Iran, and, most significantly, China. 

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Interior had also grounded its entire drone fleet stating that while unmanned aerial systems are critical to its mission, the department "must ensure that the technology used for these operations is such that it will not compromise our national security interests." That decision, which affected all drones the department was using at the time, regardless of where they were made, but was clearly seen as primarily targeting Chinese-made types in use at the time, came on the immediate heels of a spate of bizarre drone sightings across Colorado and Nebraska that remain unexplained to this day.

Worries over drone safety are not unfounded nor are they based solely on growing concerns about Chinese influence and spying capabilities. In addition to opening the door for potential cybersecurity threats, drones are posing an increasingly dangerous physical threat. Many recent incidents within the United States borders, some over critical infrastructure, or above overseas military installations, highlight the increasingly salient threat posed by small drones and even off-the-shelf commercial models. 

While the U.S. government is still developing strategies to mitigate the physical drone threat, the Pentagon's recent report should at least calm some worries over the cybersecurity implications of the government's use of DJI drones, specifically. Congress has yet to vote on the American Security Drone Act of 2021, so it's unknown what impact the Pentagon's report on DJI drones will have when it comes to legislating this issue. 

Nevertheless, the debate over the use of foreign-made drones highlights the more wide-ranging issue of American reliance on overseas manufacturing, particularly when it comes to technologies for use in national security or infrastructure. Given that China and Taiwan manufacture the vast majority of the world's computer chips and essential telecommunication technologies, there have been frequent calls for America to build its own domestic manufacturing base for microelectronics to avoid altogether the threat of backdoor exploits or insecure supply chains. 

Whether or not the United States can wean itself off of this reliance Chinese-made goods will no doubt be a significant factor in Sino-U.S. relations moving forward.

Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com