BEIJING — China considered using a drone strike in a mountainous region of Southeast Asia to kill a Myanmar drug lord wanted in the murders of 13 Chinese sailors, but decided instead to capture him alive, according to an influential state-run newspaper.
The plan to use a drone, described to the Global Times newspaper by a senior public security official, highlights China’s increasing advances in unmanned-aerial warfare, a technology dominated by the United States and used widely by the Obama administration for the targeted killing of terrorists.
Liu Yuejin, the director of the Ministry of Public Security’s anti-drug bureau, told the newspaper in an article published online Tuesday that the plan called for using a drone carrying explosives to bomb the outlaw’s hide-out in the opium-growing area of Myanmar, in the Golden Triangle at the intersection of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
China’s law-enforcement officials were under pressure from an outraged public to take action after 13 Chinese sailors on two cargo ships laden with narcotics were killed in October 2011 on the Mekong River. Photos of the dead sailors, their bodies gagged and blindfolded and some with head wounds suggesting execution-style killings, circulated on China’s Internet.
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It was one of the most brutal assaults on Chinese citizens abroad in recent years. Naw Kham, a member of Myanmar’s ethnic Shan minority and a major drug trafficker, was suspected in the murders.
A manhunt by the Chinese police in the jungles of the Golden Triangle produced no results, and security officials turned to a drone strike as a possible solution.
Dennis Gormley, an expert on unmanned aircraft at the University of Pittsburgh, said the decision not to carry out a drone strike might reflect a lack of confidence in untested Chinese craft, control systems or drone pilots.
“I think China’s still not ready for prime time using armed drones, but they surely will be with a few more years of determined practice,” he said. “And they surely will have America’s armed drone practice as a convenient cover for legitimating their own practice.”
China’s global-navigation system, Beidou, would have been used to guide the drones to the target, Liu said. China’s goal is for the Beidou system to compete with the United States’ Global Positioning System, Russia’s Glonass and the European Union’s Galileo, Chinese experts say.
The experimental-navigation system was started in 2000 and has since expanded to 16 navigation satellites over Asia and the Pacific Ocean, according to an article in Wednesday’s China Daily, an English-language state-run newspaper. The Chinese military, particularly the navy, is now conducting patrols and training exercises using Beidou
As China has been vastly improving its navigation system, it is also making fast progress with drones, and many manufacturers for the Chinese military have research centers devoted to unmanned-aerial vehicles, according to a report last year by the Defense Science Board of the Pentagon.