China Defense Industry Defense Technologies Drones National Security Security & Defense Technology & Innovation United States and Canada
Issue Brief June 25, 2024

A global strategy to secure UAS supply chains

By Matthew Kroenig and Imran Bayoumi

Foreword: A US strategy for UAVs

The United States has long been one of the world’s leading innovators, allowing it to rapidly adopt emerging technology to strengthen US national defense. This has been especially true in the field of aviation. From the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk to twenty-first-century strategic competition, the United States has made the maintenance of air superiority a major priority.

Today, however, the People’s Republic of China has built a near-insurmountable lead in the development and use of small, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Benefiting from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) unfair trading practices, Chinese companies have come to dominate the global UAV market, which was valued at $31 billion in 2023.

Chinese dominance of the global UAV industry poses a number of national security challenges for the United States. On the battlefield, drones play a crucial role in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and in conducting strikes. Chinese leadership in UAVs provides the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with potential battlefield advantages.

At home, these devices provide critical support to law-enforcement agencies and a variety of government departments, in everything from undertaking infrastructure inspections to fulfilling vital roles in scientific research. Chinese commercial drones operating in the United States and allied countries, therefore, provide the PLA with a potential source of intelligence about personal data and critical infrastructure that can be used to identify and exploit vulnerabilities in US and allied homelands.

Finally, Chinese UAVs raise human rights concerns, as Chinese drone companies surveil Chinese citizens and assist the CCP in its mistreatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority.

Washington has begun to wake up to the challenges presented by China’s dominance of the global UAV market. Federal agencies and some states have banned the use of Chinese drones. The federal government has enacted tariffs. Recognizing UAVs’ potential benefit to defense and deterrence, the Department of Defense created the Replicator initiative, a flagship effort to promote the development and fielding of autonomous systems. Congress has also introduced legislation with new measures to protect the US market from Chinese drones and to promote the production of US-made drones.

These are good initial steps, but, to date, they have been piecemeal in nature and lack an overarching strategic framework.

This issue brief proposes a comprehensive three-part “protect-promote-align” strategy for the United States and its allies to secure their national security interests in the global UAV market. It argues that the United States and its allies should introduce new restrictions on the use of Chinese drones in their markets. They should promote the development of alternative drone manufacturers in the United States and trusted allies. Finally, they should align their policies to advance a whole-of-free-world approach to the global drone competition.

If adopted, the strategy proposed here will go a long way toward ensuring that the United States and its allies can remain secure at home, deter their adversaries, and benefit from an emerging technology that is likely to play a critical role in twenty-first-century defense.

Deborah Lee James
Atlantic Council Board Director
Former Secretary of the Air Force

Executive summary

The United States has been the world’s innovation leader since the time of Thomas Edison, and this innovation edge has provided the United States and its allies with enormous economic, military, and geopolitical benefits. China, however, aims to usurp the US position as the world’s leader in the most important technologies of the twenty-first century, including artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, hypersonic missiles, and unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly known as drones. Using a variety of unfair trade practices, including massive intellectual-property theft, China has closed the gap, and even maintains the lead, in some of these critical technologies, including UAS.

While the United States has preserved its edge in large military drones, China dominates the market for smaller and commercially available drones with dual-use civilian and military applications. China controls 90 percent of the drone market in the United States and 80 percent globally.

China’s supremacy in the commercial UAS market creates a number of national security threats for the United States and its allies. First, Chinese drones operating in the United States and its democratic allies create an intelligence vulnerability, as these drones scoop up sensitive data that can be transferred back to Beijing for a variety of national security purposes, including aiding the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in targeting critical infrastructure for cyber and kinetic military attacks.

Second, China’s drone-manufacturing prowess provides a military edge. Russia’s war in Ukraine demonstrates that inexpensive commercial drones will be critical to intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike in twenty-first-century warfare.

Third, and related, the free world has a supply-chain vulnerability problem, as it is dependent on an autocratic adversary for access to UAS for both civilian and military purposes, creating dangerous dependencies that China could exploit in crisis or peacetime. States increasingly utilize “drone diplomacy” to gain influence abroad. The act of selling a drone can be used to “extract concessions, exert influence, counter rivals, and strengthen military ties.” China’s artificially low prices for UAS, achieved through state subsidies, crowd out the development of a homegrown domestic drone industry in the United States and among US allies.

Fourth, Chinese-built drones threaten democratic values and human rights, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and other autocracies employ Chinese drones for surveilling their populations, including in the CCP’s genocide of the Uyghur minority.

To address these challenges, the United States and its allies need a new strategy to protect against the threats posed by Chinese drones, strengthen their position in the international UAS market, and assert global leadership in this key twenty-first-century technology. To help the United States and its allies win the new tech race, the Scowcroft Center previously published a three-part “promote, protect, and coordinate” strategy. This paper updates that framework, and applies it to the issue of dual-use drones.

First, the United States and its allies should protect their countries from the national security threat posed by Chinese-made drones by prohibiting their use in sensitive areas, such as by the government and in critical infrastructure.

Specific recommendations include the following.

  • The US Congress should pass the Countering CCP Drones Act and the Drone Infrastructure Inspection Grant (DIIG) Act.
  • The US Congress should pass legislation to make US state-level bans effective and actionable by offering federal-government support for their implementation, including through targeted grant programs accelerating the transition to secure and capable systems.
  • The US State Department should, in light of increasing global restrictions on People’s Republic of China (PRC)-made drones, launch an initiative to educate allies and partners on the risks associated with those systems, and support secure and capable alternatives.
  • The US State Department should encourage allies and partners to enact tariffs and sanctions on PRC-made UAS to counter China’s unfair trade practices.

Second, the United States and its allies should promote domestic drone manufacturing to provide a secure alternative to PRC-made drones.

Specific recommendations include the following.

  • The US federal government should provide targeted grants to accelerate the transition to secure drones in the government and critical-infrastructure sectors, and should consider funding to expand domestic drone manufacturing.
  • The US State Department should encourage allied governments to do the same, providing reasonable funding measures to accelerate the transition to secure US and allied solutions.
  • The US Congress and the Department of Defense (DOD) should ensure that the Replicator initiative has the proper funding and support to achieve the ambitious goals laid out in the program.
  • The US Departments of State and Defense should encourage key allies to adopt their own versions of the Replicator initiative to ensure the free world has UAS in mass necessary to deter and defeat aggression.
  • The US Congress should pass legislation, using a public-private partnership framework, to stimulate investment in research and development of autonomous drones, and scale existing UAS-manufacturing capabilities in the United States.

Third, and finally, the United States should align with its allies and partners to forge a coherent free-world approach to the setting of policies, regulations, and norms regarding commercial UAS.

Specific recommendations include the following.

  • The US State Department should elevate drones in technology and commercial diplomacy, starting by designating an individual to lead allied cooperation on drone policies, manufacturing, and supply-chain security.
  • The United States and its allies should work with existing multilateral frameworks including the US-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC), Group of Seven (G7), Group of Twenty (G20), Quad, Department of Commerce, and World Trade Organization (WTO) to develop regulations and norms for the responsible use of drones and autonomous systems.
  • The United States should leverage NATO and AUKUS Pillar II to improve defense coordination related to UAS.

Pursuing this strategy now will help the United States and its allies maintain their innovation edge and prevail in a new era of strategic competition against revisionist autocracies.

The threat posed by China’s dominance of the global unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry

In 2023, the global UAS market was worth more than $30 billion, a number projected to increase to more than $55 billion by 2030. The market is dominated by firms based in China, with DJI controlling 80 percent of the commercial market within the United States and as much as 70 percent of the global market, and Autel, another PRC manufacturer, controlling 7 percent globally. As of 2021, estimates put Autel’s US market share at 15 percent. In comparison, Skydio, perhaps the most prominent US-based company, had only a 3 percent share of the global market, the same as Parrot, a French-based entity.

Commercial drone brand market share by country of origin

DroneAnalyst’s 2021 Drone Market Sector Report includes data from a survey of drone industry stakeholders in over 100 countries on the percentage of all new commercial drone purchases. The graph examines the percentage each company has of the global market share and sorts by the headquarter location of each company. DroneAnalyst

In 2020, 90 percent of UAS operated by US public-safety agencies were manufactured by DJI, though this number has since fallen due to a series of state and local bans. In Florida, before a recent ban was enacted, more than 1,800 of 3,000 UAS registered by the government and police departments were manufactured by DJI and Autel. However, in some states, DJI and Autel still hold a disproportionate market share among public-sector entities. In New Jersey, more than 500 of the 550 UAS registered by the state and local police departments were made by DJI or Autel.

US allies continue to rely heavily on PRC-made drones. In the United Kingdom (UK), for example, 230 out of the 337 drones operated by police forces across the country are DJI products. In Australia, a report revealed that federal agencies owned several thousand DJI drones, although the Australian military had grounded its systems and other agencies had begun to move away from them as well.

The global-market dominance of DJI and Autel has been supported by two national CCP policies, Made in China 2025 and Military-Civil Fusion, which are supported in part by industrial and corporate theft of foreign technology. The PRC has never been a market economy. Instead, it relies on a noncompetitive system of trade, bolstered by subsidies and other unfair practices.

Made in China 2025 was announced in 2015 and seeks to boost China’s manufacturing competitiveness across a variety of industries. The plan focuses on ten different sectors, including the development of UAS. Across each sector, the PRC aims to increase China’s domestic manufacturing capacity to have 70 percent of the core components and materials produced in China by 2025. To achieve this goal, the PRC uses a variety of tactics, such as creating financial and tax incentives to convince foreign-based firms to shift manufacturing and research and development (R&D) operations to China, intellectual-property theft, predatory procurement policies, and financing state-owned enterprises in their acquisitions of overseas companies.

Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) is central to Xi Jinping’s plan to allow China to modernize its military by 2035 and ensure that the PLA becomes “world-class” by 2049. At its core, MCF is a strategy that aims to break down barriers between commercial R&D and military products, allowing the PLA to rapidly identify, adopt, scale up, and leverage commercial technologies that also have a military application, such as UAS. The MCF system also encourages linkages between the state and dozens of private companies that can contribute to military projects and help meet procurement needs, including companies that develop unmanned systems. To achieve the goals of MCF, the PRC uses both licit and illicit means, including exploiting global academic exchanges, investment in foreign companies, forced military transfer, and, in some cases, blatant theft.

As a result of these strategies, DJI and Autel can sell their UAS at below-market cost to the United States and allied countries, a process known as dumping. A 2017 investigation by the US Department of Homeland Security found that, in 2015, DJI slashed its prices by 70 percent, leading to a problem highlighted in 2019 by then Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord, who said, “We don’t have much of a UAS industrial base because DJI dumped so many low-price quadcopters on the market, and we then became dependent on them.” DJI has even clearer linkages to the CCP than just state support for illegal trade practices. A 2022 Washington Post investigation found four different CCP-owned or operated investment vehicles invested in DJI.

The US government recognizes the threat posed by PRC-made drones. In 2021, the Department of Defense released a statement indicating that DJI systems pose potential threats to national security. In 2022, the department identified DJI as a Chinese military company operating in the United States. Similarly, the Treasury Department added DJI to the Chinese Military-Industrial Complex (CMIC) companies list, which prevents US citizens from investing in or trading their stock, should DJI attempt to build a public company.

PRC-made UAS pose four direct national security concerns. The first concern relates to Chinese intelligence collection in the United States. In early 2024, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released an alert that stated, “The use of Chinese-manufactured UAS in critical infrastructure operations risks exposing sensitive information to PRC authorities, jeopardizing U.S. national security, economic security, and public health and safety.” These concerns represented by the joint CISA-FBI alert are compounded by China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which mandates that private companies work with the PRC’s intelligence services. Article 14 of the law states, “State intelligence work organs, when legally carrying forth intelligence work, may demand that concerned organs, organizations, or citizens provide needed support, assistance, and cooperation.” In practice, this may include Chinese drone companies sharing sensitive flight data, the personal information of users, geolocation data, images, and video collected in the United States with the CCP. The transfer of such information to the CCP would allow Beijing to identify and exploit US vulnerabilities and facilitate the sabotage, disruption, or destruction of US critical infrastructure in times of crisis or conflict. Indeed, in 2017, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement determined that DJI was likely providing information about critical US infrastructure sites to the PRC, which the PRC then used to target specific assets. At the strategic level, FBI Director Christopher Wray warns that the Chinese security services present a “broad and unrelenting threat” to US critical infrastructure and are prepared to “wreak havoc.” PRC-made UAS have also been located in restricted airspace, including over Washington, DC. This is despite DJI claiming to have geofencing restrictions, which, in theory, limit where its UAS can operate.

The second concern relates to military effectiveness. The war in Ukraine is a testbed for new military technologies, and small commercial UAS have been a game changer in the conflict. They allow troops on the ground to conduct more accurate, real-time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) of adversary positions and troop movements, and to facilitate more effective fires. They have also proven to be an effective and economical strike option, as UAS can destroy much more expensive platforms by crashing into them or dropping inexpensive bombs. Indeed, Chinese drones are making Vladimir Putin’s war machine more lethal. As of March 2023, the PRC had sold more than $12 million in UAS and parts to Russia. The consistent supply of UAS has allowed Russia access to a cheap and plentiful way to carry out ISR and targeted attacks. DJI and Autel are the number one and two brands, respectively, that China exports to Russia. To maintain deterrence in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, the United States and its allies will need the ability to develop trusted drones, at scale, for military purposes and to counter adversaries’ drones. Recent news from China makes that reality more important. Last year, China enacted export controls on small commercial drones for the first time. Those controls threaten to choke Ukraine’s primary source of drones without affecting supplies to Russia. That development highlights the criticality of the United States and its allies developing alternative sources of supply.

An Autel Robotics Dragonfish Pro drone, with an 18-mile range, is displayed during CES 2022 at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

A third concern relates to secure supply chains. In recent years, the United States and its allies have recognized they are economically vulnerable due to dependence on autocratic rivals—China and Russia—for critical supplies, including semiconductors, critical minerals, energy, and much else. As demonstrated by the recent Chinese efforts to strangle Ukraine’s source of supply, the PRC has the ability to restrict US and allied access to UAS, potentially limiting their access in wartime. Similarly, drone customers not subject to federal or state prohibitions on Chinese drones, such as commercial entities, remain vulnerable to the PRC’s ability to restrict their access to UAS for civil purposes in peacetime.

The fourth and final concern relates to human rights. China commits gross human rights violations, including genocide against its Uyghur minority population. Under the Uyghur Human Rights Act of 2020, Washington committed to sanctioning companies that participate in atrocities against the Uyghurs. The US Treasury Department stated, “SZ DJI has provided drones to the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, which are used to surveil Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The Xinjiang Public Security Bureau was previously designated in July 2020, pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for connection to human rights abuses in Xinjiang.” DJI has already been added to the Commerce Department’s entity list, which restricts the ability of US companies to sell technology and component parts to DJI. DJI’s complicity in the human rights violations against the Uyghurs is indicative of the CCP’s support of authoritarianism globally. China and its authoritarian partners increasingly use UAS to suppress democracy and human rights globally. Countering DJI and other PRC UAS companies is critical to limiting the reach of autocrats and supporting democracy globally.

Ongoing efforts to counter PRC-made drones

The United States and its allies have already undertaken some efforts to challenge the dominance of Chinese UAS. At the federal level, the Donald Trump administration banned the sale of US technology to DJI without a license. The Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Department of the Interior stopped using Chinese drones in 2018, 2019, and 2020, respectively. Congress codified the Pentagon’s ban in 2019. The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) expanded those restrictions to prohibit DOD from buying UAS or components from Russia, Iran, and North Korea. This law was further expanded to ban defense contractors from using UAS and components manufactured in the PRC, Russia, Iran, and North Korea in execution of their DOD contracts starting in 2023. The American Security Drone Act, passed in the 2024 NDAA, bans federal government entities from buying and operating UAS from designated adversarial nations, including China, and prohibits the use of federal funds to purchase or operate these drones starting in December 2025.

At the state level, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas, Tennessee, and Utah have restricted the use of PRC-made UAS by state agencies, local agencies, or both. Those restrictions generally mirror federal laws, protecting government agencies from insecure products connected to adversarial nations. This first phase of state action focused on government end-user restrictions, but a second phase—focused on providing grants to accelerate the transition away from insecure drones—is under way. In 2023 Florida enacted a $25-million grant program to help local agencies reduce their dependency on insecure drones. In 2024, legislators in several states proposed similar grant programs.

There are additional efforts under way in the US Congress. Representatives Elise Stefanik and Mike Gallagher introduced the Countering CCP Drones Act to amend the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019. Their bill would add DJI to the list of equipment banned from operating on US telecommunications infrastructure, potentially impacting DJI’s ability to place new products on the market. The bill would not affect existing DJI drones.

In an effort to better equip the United States with UAS for military purposes, the DOD recently announced the Replicator initiative, which aims to directly counter PRC dominance in the domain of attritable autonomous systems. Replicator was motivated, in part, by the recognition that the PRC has a scale advantage, which allows Beijing to rapidly manufacture and field weapons systems, including attritable autonomous systems. With Replicator, DOD aims to deploy thousands of autonomous systems. Open questions remain as to what systems will be selected for Replicator, how the initiative will be funded, and how many systems will be procured. To be decisive in a near-peer conflict, Replicator will likely need to purchase tens of thousands of various systems to be used across all domains. For example, the UK-based Royal United Services Institute estimates that Ukraine is losing ten thousand drones per month in its fight against Russia, providing insight into the scale of the total number of UAS. To complement Replicator and make all-domain attritable autonomous systems decisive in near-peer conflict, the DOD should consider stockpiling drones. The stockpiling of these systems would be a hedge against supply-chain interruptions in times of conflict, and would allow for the quick delivery of drones to theaters of conflict as these systems are rapidly expended on the battlefield.

US allies have also started to act. In 2022, Lithuania banned the purchase of technology from countries deemed “untrustworthy” for applications in defense and security, including PRC-made UAS. India has gone further, banning both Chinese-made drones and their component parts. Australia’s military services and border force have grounded DJI drones, and other agencies appear to be transitioning to secure systems. In Japan, the coast guard stopped using DJI drones in 2020 due to cybersecurity concerns.

While the above actions are a good start, the United States and its allies need a whole-of-free-world strategic framework to mitigate the threat posed by PRC-made drones.

A free-world strategy for securing UAV supply chains

The United States and its allies should adopt a comprehensive strategy to address the threat posed by Chinese-made drones. The goal should be to reduce or eliminate the national security threats that come from an overreliance on PRC-made drones, and to develop an alternative drone market in trusted countries. To achieve these goals, the United States and its allies should pursue a three-part “protect, promote, and align” strategy.

1. Protect the United States and its allies from the national security threat posed by PRC-made drones.

The first element of a strategy for securing UAV supply chains is to protect US and allied markets from PRC-made drones that threaten national security or that violate international trade laws and norms. This begins by pursuing a hard decoupling from Chinese-made drones in areas of sensitive national security concern. The regulation of UAS can be modeled after the “small yard, high fence” approach that the United States is taking to the regulation of other critical technologies, such as semiconductors.

In the United States, the American Security Drone Act is a good first step, but it is insufficient to fully address the problem. In addition, Congress should pass the Countering CCP Drones Act to prohibit Chinese drones from operating on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) infrastructure, just as the United States did for Chinese telecommunication companies Huawei and ZTE. As identified by CISA and the FBI, the continued operation of Chinese UAS on US infrastructure raises the risk that the PRC will gain access to sensitive information and could use that information to conduct espionage on vulnerabilities in US critical infrastructure and public-safety response footprint, and to stage potential cyberattacks. Volt Typhoon, a recently disclosed Chinese threat activity discovered penetrating US critical infrastructure to prepare for future attacks, illustrates the stark nature of the threat. Currently, the American Security Drone Act would only ban DJI, but this should be amended to include all PRC-made drones, including those made by Autel.

Reasonable restrictions on PRC-made drones should be extended to state and local governments. Currently, the diverse range of legislation at the state and local levels has created a piecemeal approach that is confusing and leaves loopholes. Furthermore, the ban on Chinese drones operating in the United States should include the US private sector operating in sensitive national security areas, such as inspecting critical-infrastructure sites.

Next, the State Department should work with US allies and partners and encourage them to pass similar legislation restricting Chinese drones in sensitive sectors and to cooperate on common drone policies going forward. US global defense readiness and ability to project power in key regions could be compromised if China is able to gather sensitive intelligence and targeting information through drones operating in key allied countries. The United States and its allies already discuss critical and emerging technology cooperation through various forums, such as the US-EU Trade and Technology Council. The State Department should elevate drone cooperation as a key agenda item for discussion and cooperation in these forums. Additionally, the State Department should designate an individual who has the mandate to lead diplomatic efforts on drone cooperation.

In addition, the United States and its allies should seek coordinated tariffs and other countervailing measures to offset China’s unfair trade practices and level the playing field. The United States should maintain, if not increase, its 25-percent tariff on Chinese-made drones. There will, of course, be a cost to these measures, but they can be partially offset by the recommendations in the following “promote” element of the strategy. Should the United States increase tariffs on Chinese-made drones, the corresponding increased tariff revenue could be used to fund various grant programs to help existing Chinese drone customers—such as law-enforcement agencies—transition to US or allied drones.

When considering tariffs, it is critical to counter tariff evasion. In March 2024, bipartisan members of Congress wrote to the Joe Biden administration raising serious concerns that Chinese drone makers are evading the 25-percent tariffs by transshipping drones through Malaysia. The letter said, “[A]fter exporting virtually zero drones to the United States and being home to no major domestic drone manufacturers prior to 2022, Malaysia’s drone exports to the United States jumped inexplicably to 242,000 units that year.” In “the first eleven months of 2023 the United States imported more than 565,000 drones from Malaysia.” It is critically important to tackle transshipment, and to apply equivalent tariffs to—or categorical bans on—companies and products found to be complicit.

As part of this strategy to secure drone supply chains, the United States must be wary of efforts by DJI and other Chinese drone companies to avoid US sanctions. The New York Times reported earlier this year, for example, about a Texas-based company that licenses its drone designs from DJI and sources much of its parts from China. Legislative initiatives by Congress and other efforts by federal regulators to curb dependence on Chinese drones need to eliminate loopholes that would enable Chinese companies to evade punitive measures by distributing their products through US-based companies.

In preparation for a possible crisis or conflict with China, Washington and its allies should also be prepared to enact wide-reaching sanctions against Chinese companies critical for China’s military and intelligence activities, including DJI and Autel.1For an in-depth examination of what potential sanctions targeting the PRC will look like across a wide range of sectors see: Charlie Vest and Agatha Kratz, “Sanctioning China in a Taiwan Crisis: Scenarios and Risks,” Atlantic Council, June 21, 2023, Washington must also be prepared to sanction companies involved in the overall procurement process for UAS, something that the Treasury Department has done in targeting companies that support Iran’s UAV industry. A response to the PRC in a time of crisis would also include enacting retaliatory export restrictions of US technology to China. To best prepare for these potential impacts, the Sanctions Economic Analysis Unit, established within the Department of the Treasury, should undertake research to understand the possible “collateral damage of sanctions before they’re imposed, and after they’ve been put in place to see if they should be adjusted.” A quick and easy win in this space would be adding Autel to the Department of Defense’s 1260H list, the Commerce Department’s entity list, and the Treasury Department’s Chinese Military-Industrial Complex Companies List, joining DJI. Additionally, the United States must work to develop robust and durable secure supply chains for all components of UAS, including through the development of a domestic industrial base.

To guide engagement with its allies, the United States should leverage the recently established Office of the Special Envoy for Critical and Emerging Technology (S/TECH). The S/TECH should make secure supply chains for drones a priority, along with other measures such as coordinating restrictions and safeguards against Chinese drones. Additionally, the DOD should elevate UAS as a priority agenda item for all bilateral and multilateral technology engagements carried out by US diplomats with allies and partners.

Taken together, these steps will offer significant protection for the United States and its allies from the threat of Chinese-made UAS.

U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken, accompanied by the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Mary Beth Leonard, walks past a Zipline drone while touring an Innovation Exhibition at Innov8 Hub in Abuja, Nigeria November 19, 2021. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS

2. Promote the development of a robust drone-manufacturing capability in the United States and allied countries to provide a secure alternative to PRC-made drones.

The second major element of the strategy is to promote the development of a robust drone-manufacturing capability in the United States and allied countries. As outlined above, drones are critical for many purposes, and Chinese-made systems dominate all drone markets. As the United States and allied countries successfully de-risk from Chinese-made drones, they will need to replace this supply with drones produced by trusted sources.

Some of the steps identified in the “protect” element of the strategy will also stimulate domestic US and allied production. A selective ban on Chinese drones will naturally increase demand for drones produced elsewhere. Stiffer tariffs on Chinese-made drones will help to level the playing field and make non-PRC-made drones more competitive in the market.

To ensure these bans can be effectively enacted while being minimally disruptive, the federal government should provide funding incentives to facilitate the transition away from PRC-made UAS. As noted earlier, Florida’s ban on PRC-made UAS left local bodies, including fire departments and law-enforcement agencies, scrambling to find funding for alternatives. The provision of federal funds can help overcome the financial burden of buying alternatives to PRC UAS. The DIIG Act, for example, promises to provide funding for state and local agencies to purchase UAS for infrastructure inspections. Federal funding should be conditional, and only available to states that fully ban PRC-made UAS. For example, states that only ban DJI and not Autel, or that fail to ban the use of PRC-made UAS by contractors, would not be eligible for this funding.

The State Department should share these efforts, such as the DIIG Act, with allied countries and encourage the adoption of similar measures by allied governments. Its network of allies is the cornerstone of US national security. Therefore, the United States must encourage its allies to adopt similar policies that promote their own security as well.

In addition, the Pentagon’s Replicator initiative should be harnessed to stimulate a major leap forward in the development and deployment of US autonomous systems. In the short timeframe of 18–24 months, Replicator can help modernize the DOD’s warfighting capabilities and produce thousands of new drones. The US Congress and the DOD should prioritize significant, enduring funding for the Replicator initiative.

The efforts initially achieved through Replicator can be boosted by utilizing the Office of Strategic Capital (OSC). Established in 2022, OSC identifies critical technologies for the DOD and partners with private capital and other agencies to create investment vehicles. Given Replicator’s priority status for the department, the development of the autonomous UAS industry should be a prioritized area for OSC. However, OSC funding is designed to target small companies that would not be able to produce systems at scale in order to contribute to Replicator. Instead, OSC should consider boosting small, innovative companies that are in the UAS supply chain and help enable the critical domestic industrial base of advanced components for current and future UAS systems. By designating UAS as a priority area for OSC, the Department of Defense can help create a strong domestic manufacturing base for this technology.

There is potential for OSC funding to play an important role in strengthening the domestic UAS industry, with the White House requesting $144 million for the office in 2025. In addition to fully meeting the White House’s request for OSC funding, Congress should continue funding other accelerators and offices that strengthen the development of companies across the DOD’s fourteen critical technology areas.

In order to meet any potential funding gaps, the DOD should be prepared to provide additional funding for investment in small UAV systems outside of OSC, including by increasing related funding to the relevant task forces working inside of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Furthermore, Congress should authorize additional funding for the Defense Production Act that will allow the Department of Defense to further invest in the defense industrial base, including the development of asymmetric capabilities such as the small drones that have played a critical role in Ukraine’s battlefield success.

The US Departments of State and Defense can encourage key allies to adopt their own versions of the Replicator program to ensure the free world has UAS in mass that will be necessary to deter and defeat aggression in the twenty-first century. Additionally, the Department of Defense should consider the potential to invite other allies and partners into the Replicator program, or establish a multinational, allied Replicator initiative. In doing so, the department would scale the allied drone industry, create interoperability among combined allied forces, and strengthen allied deterrence against great-power adversaries.

DOD is already working to integrate UAS and autonomous systems more broadly into its operations. The US Navy’s Task Force 59 aims to better integrate emerging technologies into warfighting, and is currently focused on robotics and autonomous systems. Task Force 59 operates a variety of uncrewed vehicles, including submersible and surface-level ships, alongside UAS.

The Air Force operates Task Force 99.2The US Army operates Task Force 39, a similar initiative to Task Forces 59 and 99, which focuses on the development of semi-autonomous ground-transport systems working to advance the integration of big data and artificial intelligence across the US Army more broadly. Task Force 39 is also involved in the development of the Red Sands counter-drone technology initiative, in partnership with Saudi Arabia. For more information, see: Jon Harper, “How US Central Command’s Task Forces Are Shaping the Future of Operational AI,” DefenseScoop, May 10, 2023, Based in Qatar, it has developed a 3D-printed UAV, dubbed the “kestrel,” which can be produced for $2,500 and can carry a payload of up to three kilograms.

The efforts of Task Forces 59 and 99 are a solid start, but they have been challenged by institutional hurdles and a lack of funding. Similar concerns have been raised about the ability of the private sector to meet the government’s demand for Replicator. Any successful long-term strategy in this area will require close coordination between the private and public sectors. Replicator offers a good starting point, allowing the DOD to establish trust with the defense-technology industry, break free from the antiquated Cold War procurement process, and establish the new defense industrial base required for twenty-first-century security.

Beyond Replicator, Congress should pass legislation modeled on the CHIPS and Science Act to produce autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles. Recognizing a similar challenge related to domestic semiconductor manufacturing, Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act in 2022. The act provides billions of dollars in incentives for the research, development, and manufacturing of semiconductors. It has already stimulated the construction of new semiconductor-fabrication facilities in the United States. Similarly, the United States should provide a variety of incentives, including tax credits and investments, for the research, development, and manufacturing of autonomous vehicles. Stimulating US manufacture of autonomous vehicles will make drones available for DOD procurement, while also allowing US-made UAS to be sold globally for commercial applications.

Creating an equivalent piece of legislation for the manufacturing of UAS would have one major difference compared to the CHIPS Act—the price would be significantly lower. A manufacturing facility for the production of semiconductor chips costs a minimum of $10 billion while taking at least five years to build. Compare that to the US drone manufacturer Skydio, which raised $230 million in additional funding in 2023, part of which paid for the construction of a new UAV-manufacturing facility within the United States that expanded its production capacity ten times. For a fraction of the $54-billion CHIPS Act, the United States can successfully develop and support a variety of domestic UAV-manufacturing operations.

US allies and partners have taken note of the CHIPS Act and passed their own legislation to advance in this space. For example, the European Union enacted the European Chips Act into law in September 2023. As the US encouraged allies to invest in CHIPS, it can encourage key allies to stimulate domestic drone manufacturing in their countries.

Coordinating these actions will require a whole-of-free-world approach, among the White House, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Commerce, and US allies and partners. To achieve these ambitious goals, the president should consider designating an individual within the State Department’s S/TECH office. This individual would be responsible for coordinating this slate of policy proposals, similar to how the White House coordinator for CHIPS implementation operates. The special envoy should set a date for achieving the above benchmarks to ensure accountability.

Taken together, these actions can help create an industrial base in the United States and allied countries to provide a secure supply for UAS.

3. Align with allies and partners to forge a coherent free-world approach to the setting of policies, regulations, and norms regarding commercial UAS.

The third major element of the strategy is to forge a coherent free-world approach to the setting of policies, regulations, and norms regarding commercial UAS. Among the United States’ greatest strengths in its competition with China is its network of allies and partners. Combined, the United States and its allies possess nearly 60 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) and, when they work together, they retain a preponderance of power to shape global outcomes.

The G7, the G20, and the Quad are all multilateral groupings in which the United States has galvanized allies and partners alike to develop a series of secure supply chains for semiconductors. It should do the same with UAS.

The Scowcroft Center has previously argued that the United States and its allies should establish a new Democratic Technology Alliance to coordinate the free world’s approach on emerging technology, including UAS. Short of this, the United States and its allies should work through existing bilateral and multilateral channels.

The United States should continue to work with its allies to develop regulations and norms for the responsible use of new technology, including UAS, through bodies such as the US-EU TTC, NATO, G7, G20, and WTO. The United States would be well served to develop polices in coordination with its allies and partners through these forums. Doing so will help ensure a coordinated approach going forward. The United States should also raise concerns in these bodies about China’s unfair and illegal behavior. Though the WTO lacks teeth when coming after China, raising concerns about its behavior and trade disputes at the WTO can help build evidence of a pattern of unfair actions. The development of clear norms would help to demonstrate that the free world is not taking punitive measures against China or seeking to hold China down. Rather, it is taking prudent actions to protect itself from China’s unfair and threatening practices. If China were to reform its practices and its economic system, it could be welcomed back into US and allied markets.

Concurrently, the Department of Commerce and its International Trade Administration should play a central role in developing a trusted ecosystem—both in the United States and with its allies and partners—to secure critical components to strengthen domestic UAS manufacturing while promoting US-made drones around the world.

In addition, the United States should leverage the new trilateral defense pact, AUKUS. AUKUS Pillar II brings together Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to improve defense coordination across critical-technology areas, including artificial intelligence and autonomy, innovation, and information sharing. The Pentagon should work with AUKUS partners to prioritize the development of advanced UAS.

Moreover, Washington should work with allies and partners to develop a secure supply chain for UAV components and manufacturing. DOD has already cleared two drones produced by Parrot, a French UAV manufacturer, as secure and reliable through its Blue UAS program. This will allow for the manufacturing of component parts through final assembly to take place in trusted countries.

NATO offers other opportunities for Washington to coordinate with allies on emerging technologies. The NATO Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) is a venue for Alliance members to coordinate on the development of emerging technologies, bringing together researchers, industry, and government. In 2023, DIANA announced the first three areas in which it aims to encourage the development of dual-use technologies. One of these domains, sensing and surveillance, is a logical avenue for the allied development of UAS. Indeed, DIANA has already accepted a Czech UAV manufacturer into the program. Here, the United States should utilize DIANA as a means to further cooperation on UAS and enable reciprocal development and manufacturing relationships across Europe, creating the basis of a dual-use drone industry.

In addition, the United States should work with its allies to secure the key UAS component supply chain, including batteries and battery cells. Part of the solution concerns mineral access. Amid a global transition to low-carbon energy sources, China’s strong position in the global lithium market and Russia’s robust nickel-mining capacity present challenges to US efforts to secure access to minerals needed for batteries. As several colleagues in the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center have argued, one option to address these challenges is supporting research, development, and capacity building for alternative battery chemistries. This includes leveraging public capital from US and allied governments and using tax incentives to encourage diversification of battery inputs. In 2021, the Department of Energy announced that innovations related to advanced batteries, which were developed via taxpayer dollars through Department of Energy (DOE) funding, would need to be “substantially” manufactured in the United States. In 2023, as a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, DOE announced $3.5 billion “to boost domestic production of advanced batteries and battery materials nationwide.” At the same time, the federal government, as well state and local governments, will need to muster the political will to allow domestic mining and refining of these minerals to ensure truly secure access to batteries. Once regulatory red tape is reduced, private capital necessary for the development of this domestic capability will enter the battery market. This sort of public-private engagement is an important part of shoring up the US battery supply chain and mitigating vulnerabilities vis-à-vis China.

Taken together, these steps will help to ensure a successful and coordinated free-world approach to UAS.


This paper recommended a protect-promote-align strategy to help the United States and its allies secure a trusted UAS industry to compete against China. China’s dominance of the dual-use UAS sector presents an unacceptable national security risk to the United States and its allies. Following this strategy will allow the United States and its allies to counter the unfair CCP practices that have led to China’s ill-begotten dominance of the global UAS market. A dedicated strategy, one that limits the use of PRC-made UAS, creates incentives for domestic UAS production, aligns the United States and its likeminded allies, and will allow the free world to retain its innovation edge over the CCP and better position itself for victory in a new era of strategic competition.

About the authors

Matthew Kroenig is vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. In these roles, he manages the Scowcroft Center’s nonpartisan team of more than thirty resident staff and oversees the Council’s extensive network of nonresident fellows. His own research focuses on US national security strategy, strategic competition with China and Russia, and strategic deterrence and weapons nonproliferation.

Imran Bayoumi is an associate director with the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He supports the Center’s work on foresight and strategy development, focusing on emerging technologies, conflict, and climate security. In addition, Bayoumi contributes to the development of the Center’s annual “Global Foresight” publication.   

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The Scowcroft Strategy Initiative works to develop sustainable, nonpartisan strategies to tackle security challenges.

Image: A woman walks past a store of Chinese drone maker DJI inside a shopping mall in Beijing, China December 15, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins