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China’s Leap in Unmanned Aircraft Development

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By Nicolas von Kospoth

Larry Dickerson, senior unmanned systems analyst for Forecast International, recently stated that the international demand for unmanned aircraft is rapidly growing, with the United States continuing to be the key driver of this trend. 

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According to Dickerson, U.S.-based companies will account for more than 60 per cent of the market's value. However, western European countries and Israel are keeping up with the pace and spawning domestic development of such systems, which in some cases could already achieve more or less significant export successes (particularly Israel) with their industrial solutions. With respect to the obvious boom of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) development and export programmes in western countries, China, as much as Russia, still lag somewhat behind.

Catching up with world-leading standards

Nevertheless, the gap is quickly closing as the military’s requirement for state-of-the-art reconnaissance UAVs is becoming increasingly important in both countries. However, the activities are principally still focused on analysing (and often enough copying) already existing and fielded systems, such as the United States’ Global Hawk, Predator and Reaper as well as Israel’s Harpy and Heron. Completely domestic and unprecedented solutions emerge in only very few cases, of which many are too ambitious to make it into series production, let alone introduction into service.

In the case of China, the effort to increasingly use unmanned systems, as well as the capability to domestically develop and produce such aircraft, is publicly and proudly demonstrated, as could recently be seen on the occasion of the 60th anniversary celebration of the People's Republic of China. A total of ten short- and mid-range tactical reconnaissance UAVs mounted on their launching rail on the back of a truck, took part in the National Day parade (see “The ten UAVs of three different models have been [provided] to the PLA's special forces to carry out various reconnaissance missions,” Wang Baorong, captain of the UAV formation, told the state-run Xinhua press agency on that occasion.

According to the assessment of Professor Tan Kaijia, a weaponry expert with the PLA's National Defense University, this latest display shows that “China has made substantial progress in intelligent control systems, precise measuring-controlling systems and computer information processing for military uses.” Even more far-reaching concepts, such as the “Dark Sword” or the “Xianglong”, prove this assessment to be true, as the focus and the development is quickly going beyond small propeller-driven tactical UAVs towards high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAVs and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). The recent spotting of two probable HALE UAVs in front of their hangars at a Chinese air base suggests that such a system is already (near-to) operational.

Still many challenges ahead

However, as Andrei Chang, a Chinese military analyst with the Kanwa Information Centre in Toronto emphasised, it still is puzzling for what reason “the plethora of UAV models on display at Zhuhai do not go into production.” China is having difficulty mastering the technical complexity of operating UAVs in real time, he recently told Defence News. Chang suggests that many of the companies and institutions do not have an actual prototype and are simply looking for a foreign investor for their concept.

In an interview in early 2007 published by, Tu Jida, chief designer of the Aviation Industries of China (AVIC), said that UCAVs are still at an early development stage in China and current efforts may lead to a successful aircraft system in approximately ten years. He further emphasised that for any such effort, China will be on its own and will have to “rely on its own strength and self-reliance.” The interview also left the impression that China is still working on the development of more secure and resistant control and communication links for the operation of UAVs to prevent enemies from interfering with the control of UAVs and the transmission of reconnaissance information.

Although the extension of China’s military satellite network allows the use of HALE UAVs over long ranges and in operations abroad, China is fully aware of dangers and the importance of satellite communications in modern UAVs. “Without military satellites, the commanders sitting in the United States could not operate their Predator UAVs, which are thousands of miles away on the other side of the globe,” Prof. Chen Hong of the Chinese Air Force's Command College correctly observed. Further statements published by Xinhua (see acknowledge that China’s push in all fields of defence technology proves that the country is prepared to show strength in the air as well as in space and will make sure its networks will be working when their antagonists’ resources are down.

Major systems and concepts

Apart from the “Harpy” UAV sold to China by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in 1994, China has indigenously developed and manufactured a number of unmanned systems during the past 30 to 40 years, often based on western – primarily US-built – UAV and UCAV concepts. A row of transformations of formerly manned aircraft, such as the Ba-5 (based on the J-5, a MiG-17 copy) and the Jian-7 (based on the MiG-21), for use as target drones, as well as the development of smaller target drones such as the Ba-2, Ba-9 (many more types have been produced), provided China with enough experience to develop remotely controlled and later pre-programmed and autonomously flying systems.

China also has a number of man-portable and -launchable mini-UAVs (such as the ASN-15), which are generally propeller-driven models for short-range tactical reconnaissance of ground troops. The following list of systems focuses on larger reconnaissance and combat concepts and – not least due to the lack of reliable information – does not claim to be complete (for instance, you may miss the formerly important ASN-104/105 and ChangKong-1 or a newer concept called “Combat Eagle”, which strongly recalls the X-45 and nEUROn UCAVs). However, it offers a condensed overview on past, present and future Chinese UAV and UCAV concepts, as well as on the often-foreign technological sources.

Reconnaissance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)

• WuZhen-5 (also ChangHong-1)

The WZ-5, in particular, which has been developed on the basis of the U.S. AQM-34N Firebee, will have provided China with the required technical background to take the next step in UAV technology development. After a number of these jet-powered reconnaissance UAVs had been shot down by the PLA in the 1960s, and at least one could be recovered for reverse-engineering, the Beijing Institute of Aeronautics (BIA; now Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics, BUAA) began the development of a reconnaissance UAV based on the AQM-34N. The concept, consisting of the airframe, the optical camera sensor-suite, the turbojet engine and the ground station, resulted in two prototypes completed by 1972 and two in 1976. After achieving design certification in 1978, nine such systems were fielded by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) as of 1981.

After having been successfully used for reconnaissance missions in the 1980s, the BUAA is believed to have developed an improved version, designated WZ-5A, which provided greater accuracy due to a GPS and inertial navigation system. The WZ-5 was air-launched at altitudes between 4,000 and 5,000 metres and would then climb to its operational altitude of 17,500 metres, where it may fly at up to 800km/h. It was originally launched by a modified Tu-4 Bull bomber, and later by the Y-8E (An-12 Cub copy) turboprop transport aircraft. Due to its lack of a real-time data link, its endurance of merely 3 hours and its limitation to day-time optical reconnaissance, the system can no longer keep up anymore with modern solutions. Without a real-time link and control, it must stay on its pre-programmed flight path, disregarding changing tactical situations or enemy air-defences.

• Xianglong (“Sour Dragon”, Chengdu)

As one of the more recent concepts, the “Xianglong” of the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) was first unveiled at the 2006 Zhuhai air show. Its dimensions, jet engine and intake arrangement and wing shape very much recall the US RQ-4 Global Hawk and suggest that this UAV will also be used for high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) reconnaissance missions. In fact, it is reported to fly at altitudes of up to 18,000 metres (approx. 59,000 ft), which is slightly less than the ceiling of the Global Hawk. According to unnamed sources, the aircraft already completed high-speed taxiing tests in late 2008 and was scheduled to have its maiden flight in early 2009.

The intake and engine, located on top of the fuselage at the rear between the V-shaped tail wings, are much smaller than those of the Global Hawk. However, according to Chinese media reports, it is believed to fly slightly faster than the RQ-4, reaching speeds of about 750km/h and ranges up to 7.000 kilometres. With a reported take-off weight of 7,500kg and a mission payload of 650kg, it is lighter than the RQ-4 and can carry less weight (RQ-4B max. weight: 14.640kg; payload: 1.360kg). Due to its comparably limited range, it is supposed to exclusively operate in the Asia and Pacific region.

• WuZhen-2000 (also WZ-9, Guizhou Aviation Industry Group)

Just as the Xianglong, the WZ-2000’s design seems to have been taken from the U.S. Global Hawk, with V-shaped tail wings and a single WS-11 turbofan on top of the rear fuselage. However, the WZ-2000 is smaller (length 7.5m, wingspan 9.8m) and has slightly aft swept wings, as well as obvious radar cross-section reduction features, including a flat bottom surface. Being an older – but nevertheless stealthy – reconnaissance UAV concept (1999) than the Xianglong, the WZ-2000 is reported to having accomplished its maiden flight in December 2003 and an onboard remote sensing system test in August 2004.

Although the aircraft has smaller dimensions, it is intended to fly at a service ceiling of 18,000 metres with a reported maximum speed of 800km/h for a total endurance of only 3 hours. The 80 kg mission payload reportedly contains a thermal imaging camera and a synthetic aperture radar. Reconnaissance data is transmitted via a satellite communications antenna in the nose bulge.

• ASN-206 / ASN-207 (Xi'an ASN Technology Group Company)

The ASN-206 is one of the earlier advanced tactical UAV programmes and one of the few that has been successfully introduced into service with the PLA. It is a lightweight, short-range, tactical multi-purpose UAV developed by Xi'an ASN Technology Group Company in 1994 and produced in series starting in 1996. According to unconfirmed sources, the Israeli company Tadiran Spectralink Ltd. has been involved in the development process. It carries various mission payloads and can, therefore, be used in a multitude of operations including day/night aerial reconnaissance, electronic warfare and countermeasures (EW/ECM), battlefield surveillance, border patrols and nuclear radiation sampling.

Powered by a HS-700 piston engine, the ASN-206 is a twin-tail braced UAV which is launched with the help of an accessory rocket from a 6x6 truck and is operated by a digital flight control and management system. The aircraft marks an important step in China’s UAV development as it provides real-time reconnaissance information, while older UAV models had to be recovered in order to access the collected data.

The ASN-207, of which four systems headed the UAV formation at the National Day Parade in early October, is an improved version of the ASN-206. It significantly surpasses the AN-206’s capabilities, reportedly providing double the endurance time and mission payload with a maximum range of 600km. It can easily be distinguished due to its mushroom-shape antenna mounted at the front of the aircraft, which receives flight control commands from the ground station.

Attack Drones / Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV)

• Harpy (IAI)

The Harpy, built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), was another technology source for China’s own development efforts. The procurement of an unknown number of these attack UAVs in 1994 created quite a stir in U.S.-Israeli diplomatic relations, leading to a crisis of confidence between the two countries. This only happened in 2004 when the Chinese Harpy’s were sent back to Israel for an upgrade and after it was discovered that the PLA used Harpies during a military exercise. The Bush administration subsequently urged Israel to halt all arms-transfers to China.

The Harpy (which since has been further developed: see is not a typical UAV but, rather, a weapons system called “loitering munition”. The propeller-driven aircraft is launched from a ground vehicle or surface warship and can loiter for some time above the mission area to locate and identify a suitable high-value target. Its sensor collects valuable information until the Harpy attacks and destroys its target by crashing into it and detonating its 32 kg (70 lb) high-explosive warhead. It was specifically developed to detect, track and destroy radar emitters, such as enemy radar and SAM emplacements, in all weather conditions during day or night.

• Yi-long (Chengdu)

Another design by the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation appears to be a copy of the U.S. MQ-1 Predator, yet without inverted but, rather, upright V-shaped tail wings. The aircraft is driven by a small tail propeller. It carries a small pivotable sensor suit almost beneath the centre of the slender fuselage. The model displayed at the 2008 Zhuhai air show did not feature pylons to carry weapons, however, design concepts of this aircraft were presented with one pylon on each wing, arranged in the same fashion as on the Predator, to carry light missiles.

• CH-3 (China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.)

The CH-3 is a medium-range long-endurance (MALE) UCAV model presented at the 2008 Zhuhai show which, due to its complexity, still appears to be far from becoming a reality. The aircraft has a canard airframe design with the tailplane ahead of the main wing. Still propeller-driven, the aircraft carries a large sensor suite underneath the fuselage at the level of the main wings’ root. According to the model, the aircraft is designed to carry two air-to-ground missiles, such as the AR-1 air-surface missile.

• Anjian (“Dark Sword”, Shenyang)

The “Dark Sword” is an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) concept which was displayed as a model at the 2006 Zhuhai air show. It is obviously designed for high manoeuvrability at supersonic speeds, having a flat, triangular shape with an additional large wing area and swing canards, hinting at China’s J-10 multi-role combat aircraft (which itself strongly resembles jets such as the Eurofighter, Rafale and Gripen). Its large intake underneath the fuselage implies high speed, agility and angle-of-attack, further suggesting that the aircraft will be powered by a turbofan.

At the Zhuhai air show, a staff member called the aircraft the “future of Chinese unmanned combat aviation”, emphasising its projected ability to evade enemy radar and to engage in air-to-air combat.
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* The Dark Sword - an ambitious Chinese UCAV concept.

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