The display of dozens of unmanned-aircraft models at last November’s Zhuhai air show made it clear that China, industrially and militarily, is moving rapidly to catch up—and perhaps ultimately overtake—the West in this burgeoning sector of aerospace.
In this defense-dominated field, China cannot look to the West for technical expertise and experienced suppliers, as it has done in the commercial airliner and helicopter sectors, but the uncanny familiarity of many of the aircraft on display at Zhuhai indicates the Chinese are openly copying successful designs to speed their development of unmanned systems.
Among aircraft presented in model form, or shown flying on videos, were Chinese analog of Israel’s Heron and the U.S. Raven, Shadow, Predator and Global Hawk. Together they cover the gamut of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) from hand-held short-range to medium-altitude and high-altitude long-endurance (MALE/HALE).
When all the videos and models are assessed, “it looks like the People’s Liberation Army is taking the best of the tactical, MALE/HALE designs and making them their own,” says Ron Stearns, research director and partner with market analysts G2 Solutions. “They are copying mature designs so they can get quickly to where they can work the command-and-control and operational concepts needed for real unmanned capability.”
The scope and speed of Chinese unmanned-aircraft development has both industrial and military implications, particularly for the U.S. Widespread use of UAS for surveillance and strike in Iraq and Afghanistan has generated strong interest from other countries, but U.S. exports are tightly constrained by guidelines intended to prevent the proliferation of cruise missiles. China, with no such constraints, has made UAS a new focus of military exports.
The military significance of China’s move into unmanned aircraft is harder to estimate because, despite the dozens of models at Zhuhai, only a handful are known to have flown based on photographs and videos. Unknown is how many, if any, have entered service. China has operated tactical UAS for more than two decades, but the more advanced designs may still be in development, or operational only in limited numbers.
“It is very difficult to drill down to the reality of what the Chinese are doing in remotely piloted aircraft, but they are clearly accelerating in their ability to develop and deliver leading-edge technology,” says David Deptula, CEO/managing director of system-integrator MAV6 and former U.S. Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “We see it in the J-20 [stealth fighter]. It’s more than just a copy.”
China’s industry began by building copies of Russian and other aircraft before evolving an indigenous design capability; the unmanned sector is on a similar path. Although some of the UAS appear to be straight copies of Western design, others—such as the Heron-like BZK-005 and Predator-class Pterodactyl-1—adapt proven configurations to Chinese requirements.
“We see in the variety of designs that they are exploring the spectrum of potential remotely piloted aircraft,” says Deptula. The Chinese already have capabilities in certain areas, he says, pointing to their use of Israeli-supplied Harpy anti-radar drones and the conversion of hundreds of their older fighters like the F-6 to remotely piloted decoys. “Just as decoys they have the potential to make any engagement more complex, and we’ll continue to see them exploring the potential [of unmanned aircraft].”
Whether the Chinese military has the ability to make the best use of unmanned systems is unclear. “The answer is a qualified yes and no,” believes Deptula. “They have a lot of technology, but not a lot of experience.” But where the U.S. focus has been on surveillance and strike, China could gain an advantage by using unmanned aircraft in other roles.
Stearns expects China to use UAS for anti-access and area denial missions, as well as for persistent surveillance and strike. He points to the jet-powered WJ-600 unmanned combat aircraft shown at Zhuhai, which resembles the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile but carries weapons and was portrayed operating against a carrier battle group. He calls the relatively unsophisticated WJ-600 a “nasty surprise,” and says Chinese unmanned aircraft “don’t have to be that good to do asymmetric things.”
But China could close a technology gap quickly, helped by the wealth of information on Western UAS available openly or acquired by cyber penetration. “The U.S. Defense Department is spending $5-6 billion a year on R&D and procurement of UAS. China could easily be spending $2-3 billion,” Stearns says.
Source: Aviation Week