Chinese drone manufacturer DJI is coming under security scrutiny for the role its products play in the Australian Defence Force.
The Australian newspaper reported this week that ‘hundreds of drones from Chinese company DJI are in use across the ADF, mainly for training, and some will be used in a three-week military exercise off the Queensland coast in coming weeks.’
DJI drones have been black-listed by the Pentagon over cyber security concerns and possible links to the People’s Liberation Army.
Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles has ordered a Defence audit of its entire supply chain, including manufacturers and suppliers, to remove and ban any technology with security concerns, particularly networked devices such as camera-equipped drones and security cameras.
‘We want to be sure our current procurement policies and practices are fit for purpose, specifically for those products and devices that are currently in use within Defence and the ADF,’ a spokesman for Mr Marles is reported to have said. ‘Where there are concerns identified in the audit, those devices and products will be removed.’’
The Australian government has already removed more than 900 Hikvision and Dahua security cameras, along with ordering TikTok be deleted from all government devices due to data-harvesting and cyber vulnerability fears.
The Australian wrote that DJI drones are being used by the ADF for battlefield training, aerial observation and to capture images used by the ADF’s public affairs unit. They are also due to be used in the three-week ADF military exercises Sea Explorer and Sea Raider, scheduled to take place off Bowen in Queensland in June and July.
DJI is the world’s largest drone manufacturer by a significant magnitude. Like all Chinese companies, it is subject to Chinese national security laws requiring it to co-operate with Chinese intelligence agencies if requested to provide data. DJI vehemently denies it shares data with the Chinese regime.
The ADF briefly suspended use of the drones in 2017 following security concerns, but they were back in service after modifications such as ensuring they were not connected to Defence databases or used at sensitive locations.
Even though drones are being used increasingly in military conflict, and this story focusses on the ADF, DJI also strongly denies it is a military company, claiming its drones are designed for civilian use.
ADF documents show the Army uses the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise and Phantom 4+ drones for training, including for night missions and to ‘develop an understanding of the UAS (uncrewed aerial system) within the battlespace at battery level’.
The Australian Defence Magazine reported in 2018 that the DJI Phantom training drone was to be used ‘throughout the entire organisation, including Reservists and Cadets’’ and that Sydney-based personnel from the 17th Combat Service Support Brigade had received a DJI Phantom 4 ‘as part of the Army’s plan to issue 350 of the systems’’.
Senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Samantha Hoffman, said in The Australian article that ‘the risks associated with DJI technology have been known for several years now’ and it would be unwise for the ADF to continue to use its drones.
Opposition cyber-security spokesman James Paterson said: ‘While DJI may be a popular drone manufacturer they are also black-listed by the US government because of their links to the People’s Liberation Army and sanctioned for their role in the surveillance of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
‘The Australian Defence Force would have to have a very good explanation why they think it’s safe for us to use when our closest military ally does not,’ Senator Paterson told The Australian.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) reported on Wednesday, April 12th that the UAE-based Aeromotus had exported DJI products to Russia since the beginning of the war, and called Aeromotus an “authorized dealer” of DJI. Aeromotus is no longer an authorized dealer of DJI.