China is unleashing stealth drones and pilotless aircraft fitted with AK-47 rifles onto world markets, racing to catch up to US technology and adding to a fleet that has already seen combat action in the Middle East.
Combat drones were among the jet fighters, missiles and other military hardware shown off this week at Airshow China, the country’s biggest aerospace industry exhibition.
A delta-winged stealth drone received much attention, highlighting China’s growing production of sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles seeking to compete with the US military’s massive fleet.
The Chinese Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) unveiled at AirshowChina a new jet-powered, long-range UAV called WJ-700.
This drone is designed for reconnaissance and attack missions over land and sea.
The drone has an endurance of 20 hours.
At a maximum takeoff weight of 3,500 kg, it carries weapons and payloads on four underwing hardpoints, two for each wing.
Unlike other MALE UAVs that are limited to relatively light weapons, this drone carries standard air to surface attack weapons, such as the CM-102 anti-radiation missile, C701, and C-705KD anti-ship missiles. Other loads include early warning and electronic warfare equipment.
“We are convinced that with this product clients will quickly contact us,” said Shi Wen, chief engineer of the Caihong (Rainbow) series drones at state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC).
The CH-7’s maiden flight is slated for late next year.
CASC has clients in around 10 countries, Shi told AFP, while declining to name them.
“Some things remain sensitive,” he said.
China’s drones are now flying in the Middle East, as Beijing has fewer qualms than the United States when it comes to selling its military UAVs to other nations.
The Iraqi army has used CASC’s CH-4 drone to conduct at least 260 strikes against the Islamic State group, Chinese media reported earlier this year.
In Yemen, where a civil war has sparked what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the United Arab Emirates military has reportedly targeted a Shiite rebel chief with a Chinese-made drone.
“The Chinese have produced an enormous range of drones, and this seems to be an area that they expect to make great progress,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.
“The export and deployment of them should enable them to improve on design as they get tested in a real combat environment,” Tsang said.
The United States has plenty of lethal drones, but it has had restrictions on exporting them out of concern that the technology could be copied or used against its own troops.
Some of those restrictions were lifted in April for US allies, with President Donald Trump’s administration citing competition from Chinese “knockoffs”, but even a solid ally such as Jordan has not been able to buy US drones.
The US rules gave Beijing the opportunity to fill the void and sell its drones to other countries, but China’s “competitive” prices also helped, said James Char, an expert on the Chinese military at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
The Chinese Navy is interested in unmanned aircraft for its new aircraft carrier fleet. China currently has one carrier, another is undergoing sea trials, and a third is under construction.
Operating unmanned aircraft from the carrier would extend the surveillance and strike range of the surface fleet and improve its ability to maintain persistent surveillance, reconnaissance and strike missions without the need for aerial refueling.
The Chinese consider using such drones either independently, or in coordination with fourth-generation combat aircraft.
The current CH-7 is designed with fixed wings for operation from a runway, but the developers already explore its use from aircraft carriers, with folding wings.
Another fixed-wing drone proposed for operation from aircraft carriers is the HK-5000G.
A model of this UAV designed with folded wings was on display at AirshowChina 2018 by the Aeromarine Intelligent Equipment Company, a subsidiary of China Shipbuilding Corp.
The drone is designed for maximum takeoff weight of five tons and use launch catapult, as the other aircraft on board.
The drone can be used for reconnaissance and strike missions from aircraft carriers.
It has an integral ER/IR payload, with weapons carried on two underwing hardpoints.
Another mission that could be assumed by those drones is Airborne Early Warning and Surveillance (AEW&S), utilizing an innovative radar array developed as a proof of concept and demonstrated by the 38th Institute of the CETC Group.
Such a radar was recently flown for the first time.
The JY-300 drone called ‘Tian Shao,’ a 1,300 kg MTOW drone designed to carry 400 kg of payload.
Currently, the JY-300 is designed to operate for 15-hour missions, fly at a speed of 200 km/h and altitude of 25,000 ft., from a runway on land.
The JY-300 can be configured with several AESA arrays, on both sides of the fuselage and wing leading edges.
Other naval applications are also considered for another member of the Rainbow family – Vertical take-off and landing is one path, already reflected by the CH-10 tilt-rotor drone unveiled at the airshow.
With VTOL capability CH-10 is useful for military, law enforcement, and civilian uses, as it can operate from small islands and small maritime platforms.
Future Chinese drones are expected to include platforms that will offer extended range and endurance, aircraft that will operate at high-altitude as well as high-speed, supersonic drones.
Some of these designs were shown in scale models at the exhibition.
For example, the FL-71 platform depicts a high-speed unmanned aircraft designed for a maximum takeoff weight of three tons, designed for maximum speed of 2,200 km/h (Mach 1.8) at 50,000 ft or high subsonic cruising at 850 km/h. (0.71 Mach) at 30,000 ft, which enables the drone to carry a payload of 100 kg over 800 km on a single mission lasting about one hour, with a mission profile that could include a short supersonic dash.
FL-2 is another drone design optimized for transportation of heavy loads at high speed.
At 22-ton MTOW it can fly autonomously up to 900 km/h (0.73 Mach) to a distance of 7,300 km.
The Tengden company displayed a full-size mockup of the TW-356 twin-engine unmanned aerial system designed for the transportation of heavy cargo.
TW356 can be configured to carry cargo on four underwing hardpoints, as payloads configured in pods, including cargo delivery, remote sensing, or electronic warfare packages.
The company also develops a variant of the drone designed for operation at very high altitudes.
The largest variant, TW-765 will be able to carry 22 tons of payload up to 7,500 km.
A third drone displayed was the XY-280, claimed to be a highly maneuverable (6G), subsonic target drone designed to simulate adversary F-22/F-35 fighters.
It is preprogrammed to fly a fully autonomous flight that mimics the maneuverability and flight characteristics of enemy aircraft.
In this capacity it offers realistic training for naval forces and air defense missile units, To maintain the low observable characteristics (0.05-0.1 m2 radar cross-section) of those platforms XY-280 uses stealth design, including two integral payload bays that hint on its potential combat use as a stealthy strike drone.
As many other target-drones, the XY-20 is launched from the ground with a rocket booster and is powered by a turbojet engine to a maximum speed of 860 km/h (Mach 0.72).
Its length is 4.33 meters, and its wingspan is six meters.
At an MTOW of 650 kg, it can carry up to 150 kg of payloads, including sensors and weapons, for missions up to 2 hours. The target drone is designed to sustain up to 25 sorties.