Recent reports of China’s People’s Liberation Army hackers infiltrating into the networks and systems of dozens of critical U.S. infrastructure facilities — power plants, transportation systems, and water utilities — in preparation for future attacks or disruptions, should raise alarm in Washington.
But China’s preparations extend well beyond cyber malicious activity. For years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has maintained “eyes in the sky” above America’s critical national infrastructure in the form of commercial drones, which are persistently collecting sensitive data and information that could be passed to Beijing.
This surveillance isn’t just passive data collection; it’s a strategic mapping of our critical infrastructure, potentially laying the groundwork for targeted cyberattacks or even physical sabotage that could endanger our water supply, shut our lights off, and prevent our military from mobilizing effectively.
How did we get here? We handed China the keys. Our reliance on cheap, commercially-available drones, manufactured by Chinese companies which are obligated by law to assist in CCP-sponsored state espionage activities, has left U.S. industry and state and local governments beholden to an authoritarian state with a clear agenda to infiltrate, exploit, and dominate. These drones, used by inspectors, regulators, law enforcement, and even federal agencies, represent a major security threat.
China’s dominance in the drone market isn’t accidental. Unfair practices like state subsidies and market dumping have given Chinese drone companies control of 70 percent of the global market. They flooded the market, undercutting American and European manufacturers and infiltrating both public and private sectors. But the CCP’s drones come with a high price tag in terms of vulnerability.
This isn’t just negligence; it’s self-inflicted harm that will take decades to remedy. But thankfully, Congress has begun to wake up to the threat.
The American Security Drone Act (ASDA), included within this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, is a crucial step toward securing our skies and data. It prohibits the purchase and use of risky CCP drones by federal agencies, severing a direct pipeline of sensitive information to Beijing. The ASDA builds upon the 2020 NDAA, which banned the Department of Defense from using these drones. Now, the policy extends to the rest of the federal government.
It wasn’t easy. For years, national security advocates faced well-funded lobbying campaigns against ASDA by DJI, the leading global drone manufacturer (and a company on a Pentagon blacklist for alleged ties with the Chinese military). DJI fought hard again this year, launching the pressure group Drone Advocacy Alliance to do its bidding. Fortunately, they were unsuccessful.
This win comes at a critical time. Coinciding with China’s escalating aggression in the South China Sea and increasing malicious cyberactivity, ASDA’s passage serves as a powerful testament to the commitment of U.S. lawmakers to prioritize national security. The same playbook must be studied as the U.S. seeks to reduce its dependence on China for other critical resources and technologies, from rare earths to EV batteries.
With the federal government now aligned on the threat posed by Chinese-made drones, it is incumbent on every state to adopt similar country-of-origin restrictions. It doesn’t matter whether it is a federal agency or state official using insecure drones to monitor power transmission lines or other critical infrastructure. China will still be able to access the same data and use it to its advantage. America is only secure as its least-secure drone.
State and local law enforcement drones of Chinese origin patrolling the skies above military facilities and naval bases pose an ongoing significant intelligence risk to U.S. military forces.
A growing number of states already have such restrictions in place, with many more expected to take up similar legislation in forthcoming legislative sessions. To be effective and minimize disruption, these policies must include transition periods and financial support for state and local agencies to procure trustworthy drones from U.S. and allied manufacturers.
U.S. policymakers must also go on offense to take steps to bolster the domestic drone industry to level the playing field against subsidized foreign competition. American companies can out-innovate and out-manufacture anyone, as long as it’s a fair competition.
Such support can take several forms, including manufacturing tax credits to incentivize domestic production of drones and drone components. Similar efforts, such as the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, have quickly jump-started U.S. solar panel and semiconductor manufacturing, spurring hundreds of billions of dollars in domestic private investments in these critical industries.
Additional measures should include federal and state grant programs to proactively provide law enforcement, first-responder, and other drone users funds to replace their Chinese-made drones with secure technology, similar to the “rip and replace” effort to remove Huawei technology from U.S. networks.
The CCP has spent years working to dominate the global drone market and make the U.S. and our allies reliant on its products. This has had the two-fold effect of giving Beijing open-door access to our most sensitive sites and infrastructure, while hampering the development of domestic drone industries. Passage of the American Security Drone Act is a major step forward in countering these effects, even if much more must still be done.
Mark Montgomery is a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and Senior Director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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