US Special Forces Still Deploying Banned Chinese-Made Drones In 'Sensitive' Operations

A searing report in the major US government-funded Voice of America has spotlighted that despite growing controversy over Chinese tech and communications products used in American government, especially in light of the recent Huawei affair, the Air Force and Navy have continued to rely on Chinese-manufactured drones for elite forces even months following a prior DoD ban on their use

Despite a May 2018 formal Pentagon order which prohibits "all commercial off-the-shelf drones," by US armed forces, which cited "cybersecurity vulnerabilities," it appears some of the military's most elite squads are still relying on them. 

Apparently a 'special exemption' is required for special forces to continue using Chinese drones "on a case by case basis, to support urgent needs," according to a Pentagon spokesman cited by VOA.

US military file image via Reuters.

But the report finds alarmingly, that the exception increasingly looks to be the "norm" even when it comes to the most sensitive operations by such elite teams as the Navy SEALS

According to documents examined by VOA:

...purchase orders completed in August and November 2018 show that the Navy spent nearly $190,000 and the Air Force spent nearly $50,000 on drones made by DJI.

The Air Force bought 35 DJI Mavic Pro Platinum drones, and the Navy bought an undisclosed number of drones from DJI's "Inspire" series.

The 2018 drone purchase orders obtained by VOA via public records appear to be for some of the military's most sensitive and secretive operators, including the Air Force's only special tactics wing and Navy Sea Air Land (SEAL) teams.

DJI, it must be remembered, is China's drone-market-leader Da Jiang Innovations, which Washington officials eyed closely in 2017 on suspicion the company was assisting Beijing in spying efforts abroad, and specifically on the United States government. 

Speaking of DJI drones, Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, admitted to reporters last month"We know that a lot of the information is sent back to China from those, so it is not something that we can use."

In 2017 the US Army ordered all units to stop using China's DJI drones.

Getty Image

So it appears the potential for China's military to gain a peak into US elite forces' most sensitive operations has been acknowledged by US officials as a distinct possibility, even likely, yet the military has said it is developing 'software fixes' to thwart equipment being used as a Chinese spying 'back door'. 

The VOA report continues:

Partially-redacted copies of documents justifying the purchase of DJI drone kits for the 24th Special Operations Wing confirmed that 15 Chinese-made drones were already being fielded by eight Air Force Special Tactics Squadrons and warned that tactics, "software, and optical system development would be negatively impacted if this system was abandoned."

One document acknowledged the security concerns raised over the Chinese-made technology and claimed the military had developed a fix.

Specifically, it said that "software has been developed (specific to this model) and implemented to eliminate the cyber security concerns that are inherent to the DJI Mavic Pro."

Currently, a there's a bipartisan Congressional effort to further investigate the military's continued use of the security-vulnerable drones, given the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee put a provision into the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) effecting a blanket ban on their use by the armed forces. 

The bill delineating the DoD budget for the upcoming year is expected up for debate in the coming weeks.