The Impact of China’s Drone Restrictions on Ukraine’s Supplies

The war in Ukraine has been heavily reliant on drones, which have played a significant role on both sides of the conflict. However, recent restrictions imposed by China on the export of drones and drone-related equipment have raised concerns about the availability of supplies. China manufactures a large number of commercially made drones, many of which are purchased by Ukraine and Russia. With the ongoing fighting resulting in the loss of thousands of drones each month, a reduction in the availability of Chinese drones and parts could have significant implications for both countries’ military capabilities.

The Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), a London-based think tank, estimates that Ukraine is losing around 10,000 drones per month. While volunteer groups have been helping the Ukrainian army restock its supplies using donated funds, there are indications of a decrease in the number of Chinese drones and parts available to Ukraine and Russia. The Chinese government’s new restrictions, which came into effect on September 1, apply to longer-range drones weighing more than 4kg, as well as drone-related equipment such as certain cameras and radio modules. Chinese producers must now apply for export licenses and provide end-user certificates, and the Chinese government has stated that commercial drones should not be used for military purposes.

Initially, Ukrainian volunteers and soldiers have reported minimal impact on the availability of drones, particularly the popular lightweight Mavics made by Chinese company DJI. However, they have noted that the supply of parts, including thermal imaging cameras, has been affected. As the days grow shorter and nights longer, the shortage of thermal imaging drones has begun to impact military operations, with units experiencing decreased visibility at night. The availability of parts is also crucial for those who assemble their own drones or make improvements to purchased models. While there are efforts to find alternatives and ensure drones continue to function, the Chinese export restrictions have limited Ukraine’s access to drone parts.

This is not the first challenge faced by volunteers procuring drones for the Ukrainian army. DJI, the world’s largest commercial drone-maker, halted direct sales to both Russia and Ukraine two months after the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022. The company also prohibited its distributors worldwide from selling DJI products to customers in these countries. According to reports, the number of Chinese drones available to European distributors dropped significantly between August and September 2022. However, DJI has neither confirmed nor denied any changes in the availability of their drones to European distributors.

The impact of the Chinese export restrictions extends beyond Ukraine, with Russia also experiencing difficulties in obtaining drones and drone parts. Russian newspaper Kommersant highlighted the challenging situation caused by the restrictions, noting that thermal imaging cameras have become scarce. As a result, Russian buyers often turn to countries like Kazakhstan to purchase Chinese drones, but even that option has been complicated due to tightening drone import regulations by Kazakhstan.

To mitigate the impact of the Chinese restrictions, Ukrainian volunteers have been actively seeking alternatives from other countries. They are exploring options in the Western market as well as encouraging the production of drones within Ukraine itself. One volunteer, Anatoly Polkovnikov, is optimistic that these restrictions will ultimately stimulate drone production within Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine has marked a significant milestone in the use of drones in armed conflicts, with both sides relying heavily on these unmanned aerial vehicles. The outcome of the conflict could potentially shape the future of drone warfare and its impact on military strategies. While the current situation poses challenges, the resilience and adaptability displayed by Ukrainian volunteers and soldiers in finding alternatives and developing local drone production demonstrate their commitment to maintaining their drone capabilities in the face of these restrictions.