CHINA EXPANDS UAV DEVELOPMENT

The 8th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition (Airshow China), held at Zhuhai last November, was the first to be sponsored (in part) by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and resulted in a lot of military hardware on display.

1st Feb 2011


 

The 8th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition (Airshow China), held at Zhuhai last November, was the first to be sponsored (in part) by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and resulted in a lot of military hardware on display. Significantly, the number of UAV models present was a large increase on the 2008 show and served to underscore China’s desire to develop a range of unmanned craft to support its military.

 

China has been striving to enhance its armed forces with equipment that is technologically advanced and has made rapid progress in this regard over the last decade. The recent internet images of its new 5th generation fighter are a good example of how far, and fast, it has come, and the evolution of its unmanned aerial vehicle industry is no exception.

 

Unmanned aviation has been around in China since the late 1950’s, when surplus fighter aircraft were modified as target drones, but the development of a purpose-built unmanned aerial system for Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) duties is relatively new. Even more recent has been the adaption of several platforms to carry air to surface weapons, reflecting western experience in recent areas of conflict.

 

In times past it has been the recipient of Israeli technology, but after complaints from the United States that some of the technology passed on originated in America, China has had to rely upon other sources, both foreign and domestic. Several of the latest Chinese designs are at least reminiscent of Western platforms, but the indigenous industry capability has increased exponentially in recent years.

 

Somewhere between twenty and thirty different UAVs were showcased at this latest show, a threefold increase over the number displayed in 2008. From a heritage of relatively unsophisticated target drones and tactical UAVs, China has now progressed to developing High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) and Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) platforms similar to the Global Hawk and Predators operated by US forces. It is also embracing new ideas and models of a small ‘flapping wing’ platform was displayed at Zhuhai, along with a concept that can fold its wings, or reconfigure itself in flight.

 

Significantly it is also planning to arm several of these designs with indigenous air to ground missiles and small bombs and is so confident in its abilities that a computer-generated video of a US carrier battle group being detected by a HALE UAV and targeted by indigenous platforms and weapons was shown in the display hall.

 

Further proof of the UAV industry’s coming of age in China is evidenced by recent efforts to export some of the designs, and at least Brunei, Malaysia and Pakistan have held talks with Chinese officials about the platforms on offer.

 

For Western media, gleaning information on Chinese defence projects is a difficult and often frustrating process, the similarity of some of the aerospace corporation’s names for example has led to much confusion when reporting on local activities. Therefore the ‘window’ that Airshow China has to offer every two years provides a chance to refresh western knowledge of these programmes, and more.

 

The major companies that design and produce UAVs in China are: Xi’an ASN Technology Group, China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation (CASC), China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute (CAC) and Aviation Industries of China (AVIC), but there are also an increasing number of smaller companies now developing further designs. Displaying at Zhuhai were companies such as the Qandao Haili Helicopter Manufacturing Corporation with their V750 helicopter UAV system,

 

Whilst not intended to be a comprehensive study of the UAV situation in China, the following provides an overview of some of the more important programmes under development and hopes to give the reader a wider appreciation of progress made.

 

XI’AN ASN TECHNOLOGY GROUP

 

Reports from Zhuhai suggest that this company has 90% of the domestic UAV market and had models of no fewer than ten designs on display. The company has been involved with research and design into remotely piloted flight for almost 50 years.

 

ASN has built a range of tactical UAV systems over the past two decades and has enjoyed considerable success with its ASN-206/207 TUAV in widespread service with the People’s Liberation Army.

 

Of the UAVs it had on display at Zhuhai, two were new concepts. Firstly, the ASN-211 is a ‘Flapping Wing Aircraft System’ which emulates a bird in flight. The small UAV, weighing only a quarter of a kilogram, it may have limited operational use, but is indicative of the broad thinking within the corporation. The second innovative design is the ASN-213 which has a double-hinged wing, meaning it can reconfigure itself in flight. This is also a small platform with a two-metre wing span and weighing just five kilograms. The manufacturer claims that the ability to fold the wing in flight has the advantage of changing flight speed regimes  as well as modifying its cross-section, though no practical applications has been reported.

 

The larger ASN-229A is a ‘reconnaissance and attack UAV’ twin-boom design. The model on display had a pair of underwing AR-1 missiles and western media reports give it a 30,000ft ceiling with an endurance of around 20 hours.

 

CHINA AEROSPACE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY CORPORATION (CASC)

 

The CASC CH-3 canard-configured UAV was first displayed in model form at the 2008 Airshow China, and the latest version was on display at last year’s show, again shown with underwing weapons. The AR-1 missile, a Hellfire-like weapon with a semi-active guidance system and a reported range of eight kilometres has previously been linked to this platform, but media reports from Zhuhai suggest that a 65 kg bomb is also being integrated with it.

 

Features of the CH-3 include a cranked aft set wing with end-plate fins, canard foreplanes and a tricycle undercarriage. The model on show at Zhuhai exhibited an EO/IR sensor turret in the lower fuselage, forward of the wing.

 

The CH-3 was shown at the 2009 Brunei International Defence Exhibition (BRIDEX) and it is this UAV which was also demonstrated to Malaysia. It is also believed that deliveries to Pakistan will begin during the course of 2011. The design is at the forefront of Chinese aspirations to export UAVs to the Asia-Pacific region.

 

The corporation also had a model of its CH-803 multi-purpose UAV system at Zhuhai,

 

CHINA AEROSPACE SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY GROUP (CASIC)

 

CASIC had a model of its jet-powered WJ-600 on show, which was also shown in the CGI video, detecting and watching a US carrier battle group, whilst other Chinese assets engaged it.

 

The turbojet-powered WJ-600 is said to be a Medium altitude platform with an endurance of up to eight hours. The model on display at Zhuhai was also shown with weapons, in this instance air to surface missiles and bombs.

 

The corporation also displayed a model of its SH-1 flying wing design which, though no details were reported in the western press, at least displayed a ventral sensor turret. It is a hand-launched platform with correspondingly short range and endurance.

 

CHENGDU AIRCRAFT DESIGN AND RESEARCH INSTITUTE (CAC)

 

 

First unveiled to the world at Zhuhai 2006, the Xianlong (‘Soaring Dragon’) HALE made its first flight in November 2009.

 

It is externally very similar to the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, but on a smaller scale and with a range reported by Chinese media of around 7000 km. Developed as a joint venture between CAC and the Guizhou Aviation Group, it is unclear whether it has yet entered service. It was only displayed in model form at Zhuhai.

 

Although it does not have the endurance of Global Hawk, Xianlong is reportedly a regional, rather than global, ISR tool, which China sees as an important asset. Its performance is said to be adequate for surveillance in its area of interest,.

 

Like Global Hawk, the Xianlong is reportedly capable of deploying both Electro-Optical/Infra Red (EO/IR) and Synthetic Aperture Radar sensors, but no details were available.

 

AVIATION INDUSTRIES OF CHINA (AVIC)

 

AVIC displayed a range of UAV products, including its short-range Night Eagle and SW-1 platforms and the ducted Fan Whirlwind Scout VTOL aircraft, however it was its armed Pterodactyl I that drew most comment from western observers.

 

The Pterodactyl (or Yi-Long) was developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute and is reminiscent of Global Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator, albeit with a conventional ‘vee’ tail group and small ventral fin. Like the Predator it is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance platform and was unveiled to western journalists at the 2008 show. It is understood that it is still undergoing flight testing and has not entered service.

 

Though slightly smaller than the Predator, it had previously been reported to have a range in the region of 4000 km (20 hours endurance), though Chinese sources at Zhuhai only described it as having a ‘medium to long’ endurance.. The model on display showed two underwing hardpoints, each with an air to surface missile attached.

 

The model on display had a chin-mounted EO/IR sensor, similar to that seen on Predator, but Chinese sources have reported that a Synthetic Aperture Radar is also available.

 

Though only a glimpse into the activities of the Chinese UAV industry, Airshow China provided western media and defence analysts with a lot to think upon. Though it may not have reached the same levels of technology or sophistication as UAV builders in the United States or Israel, the progress of Chinese industry is notable. It must be borne in mind that an indigenous Chinese UAV made its first appearance at a Zhuhai show as recently as 2004. Airshow China 2012 will be the next opportunity for western observers to further scrutinise UAV progress in China, and given the rapid increase described above, it will be an interesting show. 

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