In the ever-evolving landscape of modern warfare, China has been making remarkable strides, particularly in the near-space domain. Situational awareness of potential hostile targets and of friendly forces is considered to be a key component in obtaining and sustaining military superiority over adversaries. Military requires persistent ISR 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, good weather or bad weather.
For years, military forces worldwide have sought ways to maintain continuous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, regardless of weather conditions. Enter the near space domain, a frontier too high for most aircraft and too low for satellites. China has taken significant strides in near-space operations in recent years, leveraging cutting-edge drone technology to reshape modern warfare dynamics.
Recent developments in the Chinese military have unveiled a new era of dominance, featuring a formidable swarm of drones designed not only for intelligence collection but also for precision strikes against enemy targets. This blog article explores China’s emerging prowess in near space and its innovative use of drone technology, which is reshaping the dynamics of modern warfare.
The Near Space Frontier
Near space, often referred to as the stratosphere, is the region of Earth’s atmosphere lying between traditional aerospace altitudes and the fringes of outer space. Near-space is the region of the atmosphere that extends from the highest altitudes that can be reached by fixed-wing aircraft (typically around 20 kilometers) to the lowest altitudes of Earth orbit (around 100 kilometers). It is a region that is still relatively unexplored, but it has the potential to be used for a variety of applications, including communications, surveillance, and scientific research.
This territory provides a unique vantage point for surveillance, reconnaissance, and strategic operations. The goal of scientists is to develop a durable near space vehicle capable of observing large areas for weeks, months or even years on end. China’s growing interest in this region is driven by the advantages it offers, including enhanced sensor capabilities and reduced response times.
Near-space balloons encompass two main categories: High-altitude pseudo-satellites (HAPS) and scientific balloons. HAPS are specialized balloons designed to linger in near space for extended periods, serving as a cost-effective alternative to traditional satellites for applications such as communications and surveillance. On the other hand, scientific balloons are instrumental in carrying scientific instruments into the near-space environment to conduct research and experiments, offering a unique vantage point for studying various phenomena. Both types of near-space balloons play crucial roles in advancing our understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere and enabling innovative technological solutions.
China’s Near Space Ambitions
China recognized its potential and sought to overcome the challenges associated with operating at such altitudes. In the past, the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk held the record for the highest-flying drone, reaching around 19 kilometers. The RQ-4 Global Hawk provided outstanding surveillance and reconnaissance in Afghanistan and Iraq, though the number of aircraft was insufficient to provide 24/7 coverage. However, recent Chinese innovations have surpassed this milestone.
Solar-Powered High-Altitude Drones
In February 2018, China conducted successful tests of a solar-powered drone capable of flying at altitudes exceeding 65 kilometers for extended durations, while also having the capability to launch missiles. In June of the same year, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation flew a large, solar-powered drone at an altitude of 20,000 meters for 15 hours. Known as the Caihong T4, this drone boasts a wingspan of over 45 meters and can be equipped with radar and communication systems for early warning and intelligence gathering.
At a research facility in Inner Mongolia, two drones were attached to a weather balloon and deployed at 30,000 feet and 82,000 feet. Roughly the size of a bat and weighing about as much as a soccer ball, the drones were launched by an electromagnetic pulse sling shot that catapulted them out at 60 mph.
Operating at 12.5 miles above sea level or higher, China’s new drones can break through air defenses, avoid radar detection, and collect valuable intelligence while staying well beyond the range of anti-aircraft fire. All these developments implies that china has militarized the near space domain with capability to conduct intelligence , drop cluster bombs and shoot enemy missiles while remaining out of the range of most of current ballistic missile defense.
Overcoming Near Space Challenges
Operating drones in near space presents several challenges, including thin air, extreme cold, and potential electronic component failures.
Yang Chunxin, a professor at the School of Aeronautic Science and Engineering at Beihang University in Beijing, is highlighting some of the challenges associated with the development of high-altitude drones. One major obstacle he points out is the near-vacuum environment prevalent at high altitudes. In such conditions, there is a lack of air molecules, which can affect the behavior of electric currents. This absence of air molecules makes it easier for electric currents to produce sparks, which can lead to electrical shortages and potentially damage electronic equipment on board the drones. This challenge is particularly pronounced in the near-space environment where these high-altitude drones operate.
Additionally, Yang notes that building high-altitude drones is inherently more complex than their lower-flying counterparts due to these environmental factors. The combination of extreme altitudes, low air pressure, and the risk of electrical issues makes the development and operation of high-altitude drones a formidable task. Therefore, despite the advancements in technology, there are still uncertainties about whether high-altitude drones can effectively fulfill practical roles in military operations. Yang’s perspective underscores the ongoing research and development efforts required to overcome these challenges and harness the full potential of high-altitude drones in various applications.
However, Chinese engineers have made remarkable progress in overcoming these obstacles. The new Chinese-developed drones are designed to endure the harsh conditions of near space and are equipped with sensors, including terrain mapping devices and electromagnetic signal detectors. These drones, which are small and lightweight, can function as gliders, avoiding the need for power motors and bulky antennas.
China’s Swarm of Drones
At the heart of China’s near space dominance is its fleet of drones, which can be accurately described as a “swarm” due to their sheer numbers and synchronized capabilities. These drones are not your typical unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); they are cutting-edge, autonomous machines equipped with advanced sensors, communication systems, and the ability to work together seamlessly. This swarm intelligence allows them to perform a wide range of missions, from intelligence collection to targeted strikes.
Intelligence Collection: China’s swarm of near space drones is designed to collect critical intelligence, monitoring enemy movements, and assessing battlefield conditions. Operating at higher altitudes than conventional drones, they can cover larger areas and gather data with remarkable precision. This intelligence is crucial for informed decision-making in military operations.
Targeted Precision Strikes: What sets China’s drone swarm apart is its offensive capability. These drones are armed with precision-guided munitions, enabling them to engage and neutralize high-value enemy targets swiftly and accurately. The ability to launch coordinated missile strikes from near space provides China with a significant tactical advantage.
China’s recent test of a solar-powered CH-4 Rainbow drone in near space marked a significant advancement in drone technology. During the six-day test, the drone conducted live-fire trials in extreme weather conditions, showcasing its capacity for effective air strikes on multiple targets from longer distances with rapid response times. Operating at 20 kilometers above sea level, the drone ventured into the realm known as “near space,” an altitude range between 18 and 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. This test represents a remarkable achievement as it demonstrated the drone’s ability to reach altitudes of up to 65 kilometers and sustain flight for extended durations, potentially weeks at a time.
Equipped with the capability to launch 50-kilogram cluster bombs and various guided missiles, the CH-4 Rainbow showcased its combat versatility. However, operating at such high altitudes poses unique challenges, including the potential influence of unexpected weather events on weapon trajectories and vulnerability to electronic jamming techniques employed by adversaries. Developers at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) leading the CH-4 project expressed confidence in the drone’s “basic performance,” positioning it as a formidable competitor compared to the MQ-1 Predator.
China is embarking on an ambitious endeavor to create a space-based telecommunications network using solar-powered drones, known as the “Feiyun” project, translating to “flying cloud.” These drones are designed to operate at high altitudes, up to 20 kilometers above the Earth, for extended periods, offering valuable emergency communication capabilities on the ground. This project reflects China’s commitment to harnessing innovative technologies for various applications, including disaster relief and remote communications.
As China advances its near-space drone technology, it opens up new possibilities for surveillance, reconnaissance, and strategic capabilities in this increasingly crucial operational domain.
China’s dominance in the near space domain and the deployment of its drone swarm have far-reaching implications for modern warfare:
- Enhanced Surveillance and Reconnaissance: China’s near space capabilities allow for continuous surveillance of vast areas, making it challenging for adversaries to conceal their movements. This enhanced situational awareness can tip the scales in China’s favor during conflicts.
- Reduced Response Times: With drones operating in near space, the response time to emerging threats or opportunities is significantly reduced. This agility provides China with a critical edge in dynamic, fast-paced military engagements.
- Precision Strikes: The swarm’s ability to deliver precision strikes with pinpoint accuracy minimizes collateral damage and maximizes the destruction of enemy targets. This precision is invaluable in modern warfare scenarios.
Near space vehicles (NSVs), while operating at altitudes above 100,000 feet, face several ground-based threats despite their high vantage point. These threats include the possibility of intercept by high-performance interceptor aircraft like MiG-25s and MiG-31s, which can reach altitudes exceeding 67,000 feet. While NSVs with slower ground speeds, such as airships and balloons, may evade radar missile attacks due to their near-zero ground speed, they are not entirely immune. Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) like the Russian S-300/400 and Antey-2500 systems, capable of engaging targets at various altitudes and ranges up to 200 km, pose significant risks. The S-200 (SA-5 Gamon) SAM can even destroy targets as high as 40 km or as far as 300 km. Additionally, ground-based lasers, developed by countries like the US, Russia, and China, pose a potential threat to NSVs, as these laser weapons have been tested successfully against airborne drones and hold the potential to disrupt or destroy near space vehicles in the future.
Challenges and Future Developments
While China has made substantial progress in near space, challenges remain, such as the near-vacuum environment’s impact on electronic equipment.
Challenges in the deployment of near-space balloons and drones encompass safety and regulation concerns. Safety is a paramount issue, particularly when these high-altitude platforms operate in shared airspace, potentially posing hazards to other aircraft. Additionally, the absence of comprehensive international regulations governing the utilization of near-space balloons and drones raises security and safety considerations, emphasizing the need for a standardized framework to ensure responsible and secure operations in the near-space domain. Nevertheless, China is determined to harness the potential of near space, aiming to achieve further breakthroughs by 2020.
Recent advancements in near-space technology, encompassing both balloons and drones, have ushered in breakthroughs that promise to revolutionize various applications in this domain.
High-altitude pseudo-satellites (HAPS): HAPS have seen significant progress with the development of novel materials that are not only lighter but also stronger, coupled with innovative propulsion systems that enhance maneuverability. These improvements enable HAPS to maintain prolonged periods of flight, serving as persistent platforms for vital functions like communications and surveillance.
Scientific balloons: Scientific balloons have witnessed breakthroughs in both design and payload capabilities. New balloon designs can carry heavier scientific instruments to higher altitudes, expanding the scope of research conducted in the near-space environment. Additionally, the advent of advanced instruments has broadened the range of environmental parameters that can be measured, enhancing the quality and breadth of scientific data collected.
Solar Drones: The Venus-50, a solar-powered high-endurance UAV developed by the Aviation Institute First Flight Research Institute, successfully completed its maiden flight in September 2022. This dual-fuselage drone boasts long flight durations and diverse capabilities, including reconnaissance, mapping, communications, and weather monitoring. With plans to build on this success, the Chinese developers see opportunities to further advance high-endurance UAV technology through innovations in new energy sources, composite materials, and flight control systems.
High-altitude long-endurance (HALE) drones: In contrast to the Venus-50, a solar-powered high-endurance UAV, China also boasts the WZ-8, a high-performance reconnaissance drone designed by AVIC. This UAV first appeared publicly in 2019 and has since been deployed for missions against South Korea and Japan. Equipped with advanced electro-optical cameras, potent SAR technology for all-weather mapping, and potential strike capabilities, the WZ-8 represents a significant force in China’s aerial arsenal.
HALE drones have benefited from recent breakthroughs, particularly in battery technologies that extend their flight times. Furthermore, autonomous control systems have been refined, enabling HALE drones to operate effectively in complex and dynamic environments, making them ideal for missions such as reconnaissance and surveillance.
Furthermore, China has deployed a less advanced HALE UAV, the WZ-7, near key regions like Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. These deployments highlight the growing importance of high-altitude UAVs in China’s military strategy, offering capabilities for reconnaissance, surveillance, and potentially, offensive operations.
Drone swarms: Drone swarms, characterized by groups of coordinated drones, have seen remarkable advancements in swarm management algorithms and obstacle-avoidance sensors. These developments have enabled large numbers of drones to collaborate seamlessly in tasks such as mapping, surveying, and package delivery, opening up new possibilities for applications that demand collective intelligence.
New materials: Innovative materials with superior strength-to-weight ratios are emerging as game-changers in near-space technology. These advanced materials are poised to revolutionize the construction of both balloons and drones, enabling the development of lighter, more efficient platforms.
New propulsion systems: Propulsion systems are undergoing a transformation, with the advent of more efficient and powerful alternatives. These systems not only extend the range and endurance of near-space balloons and drones but also contribute to their enhanced performance.
New sensors: Sensor technology is evolving to detect and measure an expanded range of environmental parameters in the near-space environment. These sensors are invaluable for scientific research, weather forecasting, and various other applications, as they enable more comprehensive data collection and analysis.
In summary, these latest technology breakthroughs in near space, encompassing balloons, drones, and associated components, promise to redefine the capabilities and applications of near-space platforms, ushering in a new era of innovation and exploration.
China’s emergence as a dominant force in the near space domain, coupled with its innovative use of drone swarms, represents a significant shift in the landscape of modern warfare. As the world watches these developments closely, it is evident that near space will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of military operations. China’s investment in technology and its strategic use of near-space assets underscore the importance of staying ahead in the race for dominance in this critical domain.