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). 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.
|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
Unmanned Logistics Bolster the PLA’s Operational Stance in Border Areas and Beyond
The PLA’s increasing use of UAVs in transportation and resupply missions is the result of a number of operational and strategic considerations. At the strategic level, employment of UAVs at scale – in conjunction with other “smart” technologies such as AI, cloud computing, and IoT technology – will enable the PLA to dramatically increase its supply chain efficiency reducing wastage and human error. At the operational level, employment of UAVs enables troops to be resupplied more quickly and with less risk to human personnel, especially in especially challenging or hazardous operational environments. So far, the PLA’s functional deployment of logistics UAVs appears limited; most missions entail moving small amounts of supplies to squad or platoon-sized units. However, PLA theoreticians regard even these limited deployments as having the potential to significantly strengthen the PRC’s strategic position in select areas such as border regions.
Writings produced by PLA academics as well as high-ranking officers provide additional context detailing how they might employ UAVs to gain an advantage in complex operating environments. Liu Wanlong (刘万龙), the commander of the Xinjiang Military District, claims that UAVs could solve the PLA’s need for more reliable logistics connections to border defense posts, particularly those in mountainous regions where resupply is frequently cut off due to inclement weather shutting down mountain passes. He contends that large transport UAVs should be developed to supply border defense outposts when winter conditions shut down mountain passes.
This argument reflects the positive outcomes of exercises and pilot programs currently being conducted in border regions. In October 2020, for example, a Ministry of Defense (MOD) spokesperson confirmed that UAVs were being used to supply hot food to border defense patrols operating at high altitudes. The spokesperson added that logistical support capabilities are the most important determinant for allowing soldiers to be deployed in high-altitude localities over extended periods of time (China Daily HK, October 30, 2020). Throughout 2020, press releases and news reports concerning multiple PLA ground forces exercises in Tibet have specifically mentioned that the usage of unmanned systems was intended to address the difficulty of supplying troops operating in hard-to-reach areas and at high altitudes (China Military Online, November 9, 2020). One release stated that an exercise was intended to explore the concept of a ‘new model three dimensional delivery and supply’ (素空立体投送补给新模式, su kong liti tou song buji xin moshi) that the PLA hopes will enable more robust operations in complex battlefield conditions (China Military Online, November 9, 2020). Another, concerning an exercise wherein blood for transfusions was delivered by quadcopter, stated that UAVs enhance the PLA’s ability to provide logistical support to units operating in harsh conditions at the altitudes of the Tibetan plateau (ST Daily, July 9, 2020).
UAVs will likely play an increasingly prominent role in supplying PLA troops stationed in complex operational environments. In a 2018 journal article, the director of the National Defense University’s Joint Logistics Services Studies Department argued that unmanned resupply by small- to medium-sized drones has clear applications not only for mountain operations but also for supplying island bases and special operations forces. He also stated that such drones can carry out delivery missions to areas that are irradiated or otherwise compromised by biological or chemical contaminants. A press release from a 2020 exercise in the Central Theater Command using UAVs to supply frontline troops with ammunition and deliver medical supplies to a field hospital reference the ability to sustain continuous airborne operations and supply units in remote and hard to reach areas. The commander of the airborne battalion involved in this exercise was quoted as saying that “In future battlefields, unmanned systems will play a positive role in improving situational awareness, reducing the burden on soldiers and strengthening the troops’ [sic] support capability and maneuverability…” (China Military Online, November 3, 2020). PLA Navy accounts of recent exercises to supply remote radar stations in the Southern Theater Command also emphasize that the drones involved are able to supply these bases during times when more traditional means would be blocked by hazardous weather or natural disasters (CCTV, September 16, 2020).
Conclusion and Implications: The Future of the PLA’s Logistics UAV Program
The PLA has increasingly utilized UAVs to undertake small-scale resupply missions, and it may use UAV technology to boost the tempo of operations along the PRC’s border regions. The PLA’s increasing use of UAVs may be an early indicator that it plans to eventually employ UAVs in a wider range of missions. Several PLA high ranking logistics officers have advocated the utility of deploying UAVs alongside IoT technologies to create an “intelligentized” (智能化, zhineng hua) supply chain. Such a system would enable PLA logistics officers to better anticipate demand and optimize their supply chain accordingly. In the meantime, a number of other indicators could help observers to gauge the degree to which the PLA has incorporated UAVs into its supply chain. These include:
- Explicit statements from PLA leaders indicating that employment of logistics UAVs has enabled them to increase their operational tempo in border areas, or otherwise improve their combat effectiveness.
- Formal drafting and adoption of military technical standards governing the employment of UAVs in transportation and resupply missions.
- The issuance of formal guidance from the Logistics Support Department of the CMC to corps, divisional, or brigade-level commanders on the use of logistics UAVs.
- Employing UAVs alongside other “intelligentized” technologies such as IoT and artificial capabilities to undertake transportation and resupply missions.
- PLA Joint Logistics Support Force troops employing the use of logistical UAVs in large scale joint exercises, or other major displays such as military parades.
These goals appear to be largely aspirational in nature for now. The Logistics Support Department of the Central Military Commission has yet to issue formalized guidance laying out operational standards for the deployment of logistics UAVs (China Military Online, November 9, 2020). Moreover, PLA commentators have noted that as of 2018, there was no definitive guiding document dictating how the PLA should go about constructing an “intelligentized” supply chain. It is possible that new military logistics regulations《军队后勤条令》(Jundui Houqin Tiaoling), issued on January 1, 2021, may shed light on how the PLA plans to expand the use of logistics UAVs (China Military Online, January 21, 2021), although the content of these regulations remain unknown. Until further details or indicators of large-scale adoption emerge, the PLA will likely continue to unevenly reap the benefits of unmanned resupply to strengthen its position along China’s borders in an experimental or low-volume capacity.
Eli Tirk is a Chinese Language-Enabled Analyst currently working at the SOSi Center for Intelligence, Research, and Analysis (CIRA). His main areas of focus include PLA military capabilities, Sino-U.S. relations, and PLA military diplomacy. Eli holds a BA from the George Washington University and a MA from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, a joint degree granting program of Johns Hopkins SAIS and Nanjing University.
Kieran Green is a Chinese Language-Enabled Analyst currently working at the SOSi Center for Intelligence, Research, and Analysis (CIRA). His main areas of focus include PLA military capabilities, Sino-U.S. relations, and cybersecurity policy. Kieran holds a BA from Tufts University, where he graduated with a double major in Chinese and International Relations, and is proficient in Mandarin Chinese.
 While these are the first publicly confirmed examples and are referred to by official news outlets as the first exercise, it is likely that other undisclosed testing was conducted prior to this.
 Li Ruixing (李瑞兴), “Accelerate the Development of PLA’s Unmanned Intelligent Support System (加快推进我军尤人智能化保障体系建设),” China Military Science (中国军事科学), Volume 3, June 2018, pp. 65.
 Liu Wanlong (刘万龙), “Implement Xi Jinping’s Strategic Thought On Revitalizing The Military Science and Technology and Build A Strong, Well-Structured & Modern Border Defense (贯彻习近平科技兴军战略思想建设强大稳固的现代边防),” China Military Science (中国军事科学), Volume 1, February 2018, pp. 22.
 Liu Wanlong, February 2018, pp. 22.
 Li Ruixing, June 2018, pp. 62.
 Yan Zhensheng (闫振生), Liu Yuping (刘玉萍), and Zhang Xuehui (张学辉), “Extensive Employment of Unmanned Combat Platforms on Land Battlefield (无人作战平台广泛运用对陆战场的影响),” China Military Science (中国军事科学), Volume 3, June 2018, pp. 56.
 Li Ruixing, June 2018, pp. 65.