This piece originally appeared in American Affairs.
The Russian-Ukrainian War has seen the rise of new tactics involving small commercial drones, including the use of drones as improvised anti-tank weapons, suicide weapons, and reconnaissance tools for artillery units. Ukraine goes through a staggering ten thousand drones a month—at a minimum.
The United States has contributed drone technology to Ukraine in many forms, giving drones as humanitarian aid, providing surveillance through Global Hawk drones, sending money to help Ukraine buy drones, and sending smaller drones to the Ukrainian military. The vast majority of drones used and purchased by Ukrainians, however, are from the Chinese company DJI, the largest commercial drone manufacturer in the world. The company controls 70 percent of the global market for commercial drones. Founded in 2006, DJI initially manufactured drone components before pivoting to manufacturing the drones themselves. By 2016, DJI drones were the most popular drones in the United States, representing half of all commercial drone purchases in the country. The other manufacturers represented much smaller portions of the total drone market.
Both Congress and the Department of Defense view DJI as a national security threat due to concerns over the company’s activities within mainland China. These include reports of DJI’s collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army and involvement in the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang. As a result of these allegations and the cybersecurity risks posed by DJI’s relationship with the Chinese government, the United States has taken steps to prohibit the federal use of Chinese drones.