Warplanes: There Be Dragons


June 2, 2011: Recently, Indian border police, on patrol along a remote portion of the disputed border with China, noted a small aircraft high in the sky, apparently on the Chinese side. It appeared to be a UAV, and the only Chinese UAV that could operate that high in the Himalaya mountains, and that far from the nearest airbase, is the ASN-229A. Until quite recently, India did not expect to see Chinese UAVs over this part of the border. But the Chinese UAV situation has changed over the past few years.

In the last decade, China has closed the gap (of a decade or more) in UAV development. China now has UAVs that are comparable, although not equal, to the American Predator and Global Hawk. China still lags, however, in user experience. American troops have over a million hours of UAV air time in combat zones. But in terms of the technology, the Chinese are there, and valuable experience is being gained along the Indian border.

The Chinese government has encouraged UAV development, and there are several companies currently at it, offering over 25 different UAV models. One Chinese firm, ASN Technology, has 90 percent of the military market in China, and a large chunk of the police and civilian business as well. While ASN has produced a UAV (ASN-229A), that looks just like the Predator, it is smaller (800 kg) while having a top speed of 180 kilometers an hour and 20 hours endurance. The ASN-229A can also carry two small missiles, similar to the U.S. Hellfire.

But most of the ASN models in use by the Chinese military are older, more like the 1990s technology found in the U.S. Army Shadow 200 (now being replaced by the Predator-like, 1.2 ton Gray Eagle). One of the most numerous Chinese army models, the ASN-206/207, is a 222 kg (488 pound) aircraft, with a 50 kg (110 pound) payload. The 207 model has a max endurance of eight hours, but more common is an endurance of four hours. Max range from the control van is 150 kilometers and cruising speed is about 180 kilometers an hour. The Chinese army also have several models of smaller UAVs (50-100 kg/100-220 pounds), with endurance of 2-4 hours. The lack of persistence (the ability to stay in the air for long periods of time) means the Chinese are unable to use this most important of UAV capabilities. The Chinese now have new UAVs that are closer to current U.S. designs, but the Chinese military has not yet bought a lot of them.

While many Chinese UAVs demonstrate an American influence, some appear to be using Israeli technology. That's no accident, as four years ago, Israeli UAV manufacturer EMIT got busted after it was caught shipping UAV technology to China. EMIT was not a major player in the UAV industry, having only three models; the 450 kg Butterfly, 182 kg (400 pound) Blue Horizon, the 48 kg (hundred pound) Sparrow. The twenty year old firm has been scrambling to stay in business. The Chinese helped set up a phony cooperative deal in a Southeast Asian country, to provide cover for the transfer of EMIT UAV technology to China. Most of EMIT's production is for export, but Israel has agreed to consult with the United States about transfers of technology to China. This is because Israel has been caught exporting military equipment, containing American technology, to China (in violation of agreements with the United States.) China tends to get technology wherever, and whenever, it can.

China is offering most of its UAVs for export. One of the more interesting of these is a 220 kg (484 pound) helicopter UAV. The U8E has a top speed of 150 kilometers an hour, endurance of four hours, range (from operator) of 150 kilometers and a payload of 40 kg (88 pounds). This is sufficient for day/night cameras, laser designators and the like. Police like these helicopter UAVs, soldiers less so.

Three years ago, China revealed that it was developing a new UAV, similar to the U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk. Called Xianglong (Soaring Dragon), it is about half the size of the Global Hawk, at 7.5 tons, with a 14.5 meter (45 foot) wingspan and a .65 ton payload. Max altitude will be 18.4 kilometers (57,000 feet) and range will be 7,000 kilometers. It has a faster cruising speed (750 kilometers an hour) than the RQ-4.

The Chinese Xianglong is also intended for maritime patrol, as is a U.S. Navy model of the RQ-4. The shorter range of the Xianglong is apparently attributable to the lower capabilities of the Chinese aircraft engine industry. The Xianglong is believed to be in limited service, meaning that it is still being developed. Since the Indian border guards have not yet gotten pictures, the mystery UAV over the border might have been a Xianglong, doing some field testing.

Chinese firms have also been developing jet propelled UAVs. Four years ago, Beijing Black Buzzard Aviation Technology Limited, offered for sale two such UAVs . Both are powered by a miniature jet engine, larger than the types used in remote control model aircraft. Both models are similar in appearance, and look more like target drones than reconnaissance UAVs. The HFT-40A weighs 57 kg (100 pounds), is 3.3 meters (ten feet) long, with a 2.1 meter (6.5 foot) wingspan. It has a top speed of 500 kilometers an hour, max endurance of three hours and can operate 80 kilometers from its base station. The HFT-60A weighs 90 kg (198 pounds), is 3.8 meters (11 feet) long, with a 2.2 meter (seven foot) wingspan. It has a top speed of 700 kilometers an hour, endurance of three hours and can operate 150 kilometers from its base station.

These two UAVs are unique, as most users want endurance and slow speed. It's unclear what market these two high speed, low endurance UAVs are being pitched to. But the Chinese government encourages such research, as it provides a technology base for the development of larger, combat UAVs. Some of these have begun to appear, serving as high speed recon aircraft for naval forces. Once these UAVs spot an American carrier, high speed cruise missiles will not be far behind.


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