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Monday, August 8, 2011

China Seeks UAV Capability

China was until the late 1990s content to follow Western unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developments and keep pace by copying or purchasing foreign technology. But when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched a modernization program in the late 1990s to prepare for possible conflict over Taiwan, development of unmanned systems became a priority. The result has been phenomenal growth in the UAV sector, which engages aircraft, helicopter, cruise missile and model aircraft companies, private concerns and university research centers.

At the third biennial Vanguard UAV exhibition in June 2010, 70 UAV-related companies displayed their wares, and at the November 2010 Zhuhai air show, 25 indigenous UAVs were shown. PLA ambitions for UAV development cover the gamut from micro to tactical to strategic, and could soon include stratospheric/near-space airships and hypersonic platforms.

Increasing utilization of UAVs is consistent with the PLA’s strategy/doctrine goal of “informatization”—the broad military exploitation of relevant information technologies. Chinese microelectronics companies have developed sophisticated “cockpit” control and monitoring stations and laptop programs for operating UAVs. Chinese optics companies supply systems for all sizes of UAVs. When completely lofted later this decade, China’s Compass navigation satellite network could enable global UAV operations. Industry sources make clear that UAVs and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) will be integral parts of the sensor-to-shooter continuum from the soldier to space.

The PLA is increasing its use of tactical UAVs at a moderate pace. Introduced in the early 1990s, PLA army units use multiple versions of the Xian ASN-206, a truck-launched UAV with range of 150 km (93 mi.) and 6-8 hr. of endurance. These are seen increasingly in exercises, for example, supporting long-range strikes by PHL03 300-mm multiple-launch rocket systems. Some versions use saucer-shaped communication link antennas.

Introduced in 2000, the Nanjing Research Institute on Simulation Technique’s comparable W-50, a nearly 100-kg (220-lb.) UAV with 4-6 hr. of endurance serves in some army units.

The hand-launched ASN-15, a 6.5-kg UAV, is also featured in small-unit army exercises. A version of the ASN-15 is carried by a variant of the Type-89 armored personnel carrier equipped with a command-and-control center.

Some small UAVs in service come from the model industry. For example, the Poly arms-trading consortium markets W-1, a 1.75-kg, 1-hr.-endurance, electric-powered, hand-launched UAV with laptop control, based on a radio-controlled Styrofoam model.

While the PLA has invested in a growing capacity to develop vertical-takeoff UAVs, the services have been slow to make wide use of them. During the 1990s, BUAA (now Beihang University) developed small vertical-takeoff UAVs with coaxial rotors for naval use, while Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics developed the Soar Bird series, with its 900-kg LE300 model being similar in size to the Northrop Grumman Fire Scout. A 320-kg LE300 version has been observed with an artillery unit.

The Chinese Helicopter Research and Development Institute, designer of the Z-10 attack helicopter, tested the 220-kg U-8E in 2006, a platform with 4 hr. of endurance, now marketed at air shows, though it is not clear if the PLA uses it. China’s radio-controlled-helicopter model makers have also produced slightly larger program-controlled vertical-takeoff UAVs for surveillance, following on the RMAX copied from Yamaha. Examples include the 120-kg, 1.5-hr.-endurance Servi-Helo. Several companies are making small quad-rotor vertical-takeoff UAVs popular with police. In 2010 the Whirlwind Scout was revealed, a ducted-fan vertical-takeoff model with 20-40 min. of endurance, similar in size and shape to the Class-1 UAV of the U.S. Army’s canceled Future Combat Systems program.

China is producing medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs, some with specialized weapons as UCAVs, though introduction into PLA service is proceeding at a moderate pace. Likely a product of the Chengdu and Guizhou aviation companies, the Predator-1 sized Pterodactyl-1, with 20 hr. endurance, was shown for the first time at the November 2010 Zhuhai air show armed with the Norinco BA-7 optically guided missile. In development since 2004 and able to transmit imagery to other combat platforms via a ground station, it is not known to be in PLA service.

First seen at the 2008 Zhuhai show, the slightly smaller CH-3, with 12-hr. endurance, uses a canard design copied from the U.S. Varieze home-built aircraft. It is armed with the FT-5 small satnav-guided bomb and AR-1 optically guided missile, similar in size to the BA-7. Wall displays at the 2008 Zhuhai show indicated that the CH-3 could support ground and maritime operations. While neither UCAV has been seen with a PLA unit, Pakistan selected the CH-3 for co-production and is testing a version of it.

Turbojet and turbofan UCAVs have also been developed by the PLA. For almost a decade sources in Taiwan pointed to the PLA air force’s growing UCAV-modified J-6 fighters, which number almost 300. These supersonic-capable UCAVs could deliver precision-guided missiles, forcing Taiwan, for one, to expend surface-to-air missiles in defense.

At the 2002 Zhuhai air show, the Guizhou-Chengdu combine was likely responsible for the WZ-2000, a high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) turbofan UAV resembling Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk. In 2008, Luoyang Opto-Electronics Co. (LOEC) displayed a model of a high-altitude, medium-size UCAV similar to the WZ-2000, but armed with a version of its TY-90 helicopter air-to-air missile.

In 2010, Norinco displayed its BA-7 air-to-ground missile for the first time, based on its HJ-10 helicopter ground-attack missile. The Norinco display added credence to the existence of a faster delta-wing turbofan UCAV program that first came to notice in a 2005 issue of a Chinese military magazine. The UCAV was depicted with a missile like the BA-7, raising the possibility that one or both UCAV programs pre-date 2005. They could represent competitive programs or an attempt to develop complementary high- and low-altitude surveillance and attack platforms.

At the 2008 Zhuhai show, Shenyang Aircraft Co. showed Warrior Eagle, a forward-swept-wing subsonic turbofan UCAV that would operate in cooperative groups. Chinese officials, however, would not answer questions about this program and it did not reappear at the 2010 show.

The PLA is also pursuing strategic UAVs. So far, the main HALE surveillance UAV in service is the BKZ-05, first seen in video at the 2004 Zhuhai show. Powered by a reciprocating or turbine pusher engine, this twin-tail aircraft is similar in size to Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron, and the unit that operates them outside Beijing is reportedly subordinate to the national strategic command general staff department of the central military commission.

Chengdu Aircraft Corp.’s Tianyi UAV, similar in configuration but about two-thirds the size of a Global Hawk, was seen tested in 2008. If adopted, this UAV might have sufficient range to cover Chinese-claimed territories in the East China and South China seas. It could also be a test program for the Long Haul Eagle, a UAV that is more comparable in size and configuration to the Global Hawk.

At the 2006 Zhuhai show, Guizhou revealed its Soar Dragon HALE concept, a 7,500-kg, box-wing configuration with a 650-kg payload and 7,000-km range, but there has been no confirmation of this program.

Also in 2006, Shenyang Aircraft Corp. caused a stir with its Dark Sword UCAV concept, originally described as being for unmanned air-to-air combat, a description not repeated in subsequent displays. The inclusion of another model in a special Chinese Aviation Museum display to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the PLA air force in 2009 renewed concern that this could be an ongoing program, if only to allow the air force’s emerging fifth-generation fighters to employ a complementary supersonic unmanned platform for offensive and defensive missions.

There is considerable interest in near-space or stratospheric UAVs that the U.S. believes could serve missions ranging from surveillance, energy weapons deployment or heavy troop transport. China Aerospace Corp. and university research centers are studying near-space platform concepts. Much of this research pertains to very-high-altitude airships that might initially focus on surveillance and communication relay missions, especially over the Pacific Ocean.

The PLA is investing heavily in research and development of hypersonic UAV/UCAVs for near-space and low-Earth-orbit missions. In 2007, Chinese sources revealed the Chengdu Shenlong, a small space plane that is about the same size as the Boeing X-37B small space plane. There are reports it may have had a sub-orbital test in 2010 or earlier.

There are also unconfirmed reports that Chengdu tested a hypersonic technology vehicle similar to NASA’s X-43A. Chinese military-directed academic engineering literature reflects broad interest in hypersonic research, focusing on engines, thermal protection materials, guidance and airframe-engine integration and design. One 2010 article by researchers at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Mechanics, proposed a Mach 3 platform that could be manned or unmanned. The U.S. Air Force envisions a similarly capable platform in service by 2030, but might the PLA’s fly first?

Fisher is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center of Alexandria, Va.

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.
Alexandria, Va.

Thank you!

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