It was another big reveal in a long history of them. Six months after the Chinese air force let the first photos of its new stealth fighter leak online, Beijing’s military has “accidentally” showed off another secretive weapon system: a small drone, apparently used to scout ahead of China’s fast-growing fleet of warships.
Details of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle — gleaned entirely from a snapshot taken by a Japanese navy patrol plane last week — are sketchy, at best. But the new UAV certainly represents a step forward in China’s development of American-style spy drones.
The drone (pictured above) appears to be small, possibly no more than a dozen feet in length. Since it was spotted far from land in the company of Chinese warships, it’s likely that the flying robot is launched from the helicopter flight deck of a frigate or destroyer — though the exact methods of launch and recovery remain unclear. (U.S. naval drones use catapults or take off vertically.) The UAV’s apparent small size implies a limited range and basic sensors, particularly given China’s problems building robots and advanced military electronics.
The circumstances of the pilotless plane’s revelation could offer hints about its role. Early this month, the Chinese navy sailed 11 warships through international waters between two Japanese islands. The two-week deployment — a new, semi-annual tradition for the rapidly-expanding Chinese navy — was probably meant as a display of strength, and included target practice for the ships’ crews.
It just so happens, a drone is an excellent way to spot targets for long-range gunfire and missiles — especially for a navy that lacks the ultra-high-tech satellites the U.S. Navy takes for granted. And what could be more impressive for foreign audiences than “accidentally” letting the Japanese photograph the new UAV in action?
For all that, the Chinese ‘bot could be fairly dated technology. Considering where the drone was spotted — at sea, and above warships — and its apparent size, it’s probably a rough analogue to the U.S. Navy’s RQ-2 Pioneer. During its heyday in 1991, that drone helped the battleship USS Missouri aim its massive, 16-inch guns at Iraqi shore targets. Today, the Pioneer has been superseded in American service by far more sophisticated ship-launched drones.
Which is to say: yes, the Chinese have a new UAV, and it’s pretty cool. But publicly launching a flying robot from the deck of a warship for the first time just means the People’s Liberation Army Navy is finally catching up to the where the U.S. Navy was … 20 years ago.
Photo: Japanese navy