China’s People’s Liberation Army is deploying increasingly sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles. PLA is seeking to close the technological and capability gap with other leading military powers such as the United States, as well as to develop systems that are able to fulfill its foreseeable military requirements in an effective way.
China’s newest weapons were on display during the massive military parade staged in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of Communist rule in Oct 2019. The parade offered the first clear look at the supersonic DR-8 spy drone, which “would be expected to play a key role should there be a conflict with US aircraft carrier strike groups in the South China Sea or Western Pacific,” wrote the South China Morning Post. Some Western observers believe that the drone, which is reportedly able to travel Mach 3.3, is meant to spot targets for the D-21 anti-ship ballistic missile.
“Chinese publications on unmanned systems highlight a number of potential roles. These include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); maritime surveillance, particularly in the East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS); border surveillance; military communications relay; electronic warfare (EW); mine warfare/mine countermeasures; combat applications/strike missions; and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) missions, such as imaging areas struck by earthquakes,” said RAND’s report “Emerging Trends in China’s Development of Unmanned Systems”
“China’s focus on unmanned systems is at least partially attributable to their potential utility in maritime territorial disputes, but unmanned systems could also be useful to China’s military in a range of other contingencies, including domestic disaster relief operations. Chinese government agencies are also finding ways to use unmanned systems for domestic applications, such as industrial pollution monitoring, and Chinese companies are exploring the use of unmanned systems for package delivery,” according to RAND report.
The Pentagon reported that China has been incorporating UAVs into military exercises in recent years, including one drill in the East China Sea in 2013. That move irked Japan, which quickly announced that it had plans to shoot down foreign drones.
Drones employed extensively in China for Civilian and Military Use
Drones are widely employed in China, As the end of 2013, there are over fifteen thousand UAVs operating in China in the civilian sector alone. Within China, civilian drones are being put to a wide range of uses, including videography during marriages, courier delivery and security surveillance in major industrial projects. They were also used in search and rescue during earthquakes and other disaster management tasks.
PLA has incorporated large number of a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into its force structure, while also starting to experiment with and, to a limited extent field, unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). The PLA’s sophisticated unmanned weapons systems will increase its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, while its progress in artificial intelligence would enhance their autonomy and could enable a disruptive operational advantage. In the immediate future, the probable missions for the PLA’s unmanned weapons systems will include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); integrated reconnaissance and strike; information operations, especially electronic warfare; data relay, including communications relay and guidance for missiles engaged in over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting; and military operations other than war, such as counterterrorism and border defense.
Chinese air force is reportedly deployed its latest spy drone to peer down at foreign ships, presumably including American vessels. The newly obtained satellite images from ImageSat International (ISI) show a Chinese Harbin BZK-005 long range reconnaissance drone on Woody Island in the South China Sea. The drone can remain airborne for up to 40 hours.
In addition, recent breakthroughs in swarm intelligence could enable “swarm warfare” for asymmetric assaults against major U.S. weapons platforms, such as aircraft carriers. The PLA has also intensified its efforts to capitalize upon the military applications of artificial intelligence. Looking forward, PLA strategists, recognize and intend to capitalize upon a trend towards “unmanned, intangible, silent warfare” that is increasingly “intelligencized writes Elsa B. Kania Analyst, The Long Term Strategy Group.
China’s military drone programme is now ramping up and moving to the next level. New developments include fleets of UAVs that can be launched from aircraft carriers, bolstering the Chinese naval capabilities and swarm-intelligence systems that synchronize operations between drones and other military aircraft.
China’s Military drones
Countries like the US and Israel are still leading in military applications of larger robotic aircraft, particularly weaponized ones, but china is catching up fast.
“AVIC manufacturers a wide range of UAVs, including its electrically powered micro air vehicle (MAV), the jet-powered LIEOE, which appears almost identical to the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, for reconnaissance, surveillance, and attack missions, the AVIC Sky Eye, an electrically unmanned helicopter designed to be deployed by artillery or rocket round, for reconnaissance and targeting, and the TL-8 Sky Dragon for simulating cruise missiles for Chinese military,” according to Avionics Intelligence.
Pentagon report highlights four Chinese drones in particular— the Xianglong, Yilong, Sky Saber, and Lijian— that were all unveiled in 2013. The Yilong, Sky Saber, and Lijian are all designed to carry carry precision-strike weapons, the report said, and the Lijian is a stealth drone. Visually, it closely resembles the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper — so much so that experts believe it was engineered using information stolen from U.S. defense contractors, said Peter W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
The PLA ground force has a number of UAVs that are primarily smaller, more tactical models and are often used for battlefield reconnaissance and targeting artillery fire to improve precision strikes. A significant proportion of these are part of a series produced by the Xian Aisheng Technology Group. The fixed-wing drones have a conventional design with a mid-wing configuration and are used to support the artillery.
NAVY : BZK-005 or Changying
The navy generally uses smaller, tactical drones but it also has a limited number of sophisticated reconnaissance UAVs, notably this medium-altitude, long-endurance model. Roughly comparable to the US Global Hawk, it has a maximum range of 2,400km and a maximum endurance of 40 hours. It has been operating in the vicinity of the East China Sea since at least 2013 and there were also reports in 2016 that it had been deployed to Woody Island in the South China Sea – both disputed territories.
Blowfish I UAV, capable of vertical take-off and landing has entered service with PLAN. Zhuhai based manufacturer, showcased a model of the electric powered 1.75 m long platform, carrying three missile like projectiles. As per reports , it has a maximum take-off weight between 28 and 50 kgs, endurance between 45 to 60 minutes, can fly upto an altitude of 5100m and carry a payload between 7 and 12 kg., excluding its electro-optical system. It can also be equipped with anti-personal grenades and be modified to deploy small sonobuoys.
China tests killer drones for street-to-street urban warfare
A Chinese technology firm is testing a new attack drone specifically designed to help ground troops in street-level combat, in the hope that it can sell the unit abroad, reports say. The makers say the drone, which is designed to be controlled by soldiers on the ground, has an operational distance of 3 miles and has a vertical range of 3.7 miles. It will be fitted with infrared and laser detectors to enable night surveillance operations and armed with two 2-inch rockets designed to strike from a distance of up to 0.6 miles.
The developer, Tianjin Zhongwei Aerospace Data System Technology, said the unmanned aerial vehicle had been designed to carry out both reconnaissance missions and close-range strikes against armoured vehicles or individuals in an urban environment. “It is suitable for circumstances that include asymmetric combat, counterterrorism and special forces [operations] and street battles,” the report said.
Military commentator Song Zhongping said quadcopters such as the Tianyi, which are powered by four rotors, were easy to maneuver and could navigate their way around buildings and carry out precision strikes – even firing through windows at close range.“It is light, cheap, adaptable and can easily survive in battle, so when [it is] mass-produced, the People’s Liberation Army could deploy this kind of mini-drone on the front line and improve [their] combat ability,” he said.
Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones
Medium Altitude Long Endurance drones can be described as UAVs with a service ceiling of below 9,000 meters and capable of flying a relatively long endurance of up to 24 hours or longer. These UAVs tend to be powered by propeller engines rather than jet engines. Well-known international MALE drones include the MQ-1 and MQ-9 from the United States or the Heron system from Israel.
The PLA’s current in-service MALE drone fleet consists of three main types. The BZK-005 is a twin boom UAV thought to be in service with both the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force, and may be known as “Sea Eagle” and “Giant Eagle” respectively. It is equipped with an electro-optic (EO) turret that appears to be its primary sensor. The BZK-005 also appeared as a display at the 2015 parade marking Japan’s defeat in World War II.
The GJ-1 and GJ-2 are MALE UAVs capable of the strike role and are the domestic in-service variants of the original export oriented Wing Loong I and Wing Loong II systems. Both GJ-1 and GJ-2 are equipped with EO turrets and the ability to launch small air-to-ground missiles, namely the KD-9/10 laser guided anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) family.
AIR FORCE: GJ-1 or Gongji and GJ-2
A medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV, the Gongji – which means “attack” in Chinese – is a land attack version of the Pterodactyl. It has a range of 4,000km and a maximum endurance of 20 hours. Similar to the US Predator, this drone can carry at least 10 types of precision weapons, including air-to-ground missiles, precision-guided rockets and precision-guided bombs. It has an optical turret, infrared and photoelectric sensors, and laser target pointers, and can guide the targeting of anti-tank missiles as well as provide targeting instructions for other aircraft or ground weapons. It is known for its integrated reconnaissance and strike capabilities, but can also be used for electronic warfare, to guide targeting, or as an anti-radiation missile.
Being a larger aircraft, GJ-2 is able to carry a larger payload and is also thought to be equipped with a chin mounted synthetic aperture radar to further enhance target acquisition. GJ-1 and GJ-2 are considered to be the PLA’s equivalents of MQ-1 and MQ-9, respectively. GJ-2 was present at the 2019 National Day parade as a display.
In 2015, China unveiled its heaviest new attack and reconnaissance drone, the Caihong 5, or CH-5 [ Rainbow 5]. The Chinese drone can carry 900kg of weapons, still less that American MQ-9 that can handle 1,749kg. By one report it can carry a payload of 3 tons carrying bombs and missiles and traveling up to 2,100 miles. Made of composite materials, it has a wingspan of more than 20 meters, air-cruising time of more than 30 hours, takeoff weight of three tons. CH-5 features “one-key landing”, meaning that it can realize automatic takeoff and landing with a simple button operation. The drone’s chief designer, Ou Zhongming, said it can be equipped with wall-penetrating radar capability, which would allow it to track targets inside buildings. Chinese CH-3 and CH-4 drones resemble U.S.-made drones, like the iconic MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.
NORINCO, one of China’s leading defense contractors, unveiled a new armed drone helicopter. ORINCO’s Sky Saker is a coaxial rotor, 100-200kg helicopter UCAV. The Sky Saker H300’s cameras include electro-optical and infrared systems, along with laser target designators. In addition to surveillance and fire control, the Sky Saker H300 can provide midcourse corrections for guided munitions launched by other platforms, such as cruise missiles from H-6K bombers or shells fired from PLZ-05 howitzers.
High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drones
High Altitude Long Endurance drones are UAVs with a service ceiling that can approach 18,000 meters. HALE drones tend to be powered by jet engines, and tend to be more expensive and comparatively larger than MALE equivalents. The most well-known international HALE drone systems would be the U.S. RQ/MQ-4 Global Hawk and Triton family.
The PLA operates one major type of HALE drone, dubbed with various names over the years including Soaring Dragon, EA-03, and WZ-7. For this piece, the name WZ-7 will be used. This aircraft uses a unique box wing design, with twin tails and a dorsally mounted jet engine. The service status of this aircraft has been confirmed in the last few years by satellite pictures showing the presence of WZ-7s deployed to various different airbases around China, such as the deployment of WZ-7s to Tibet during the Doklam standoff with India in 2017, as well as the presence of WZ-7s based in the South China Sea. More recently nine WZ-7s were seen at a single airbase in Jilin province facing the Korean Peninsula.
The other major HALE drone being pursued by the PLA is a large, twin joined hull aircraft commonly called Divine Eagle. The aircraft is thought to be an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) UAV, where the joined hull design may allow for installation of conformal radar arrays on the sides and perhaps the front surfaces of the fuselage.
Chinese Drones Make Key Breakthrough, Firing On Command by Satellite
Chinese drones are now also catching up in performance with US drones. Until now Chinese drones could be commanded only through direct line of sight communications which had limited their range to few hundred kilometers from their control station. Recently Chinese UAVs have demonstrated ‘remote split operation”, by which pilots of CH-4 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), sitting in a control station 1,000km away could fire an anti-tank missile using satellite link. official Xinhua News Agency reported that China has conducted live fire tests with two CH-4 UAVs. Chinese usage of a satellite link for combat operations is a major boost to Chinese global military capabilities.
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