Warplanes: China Enhances The Robotic Rainbow

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June 27, 2016: China recently announced two upgrades to its CH-4 UAV. This is the Chinese version of the American Predator UAV. CH-4 entered service in 2011 as part of the “Rainbow” series of UAVs. But CH-4 was much less capable than the Predator. However with the new updates a CH-4 can be controlled via satellite. This includes firing laser guided missiles. CH-4 also has a new sensor system. Improvements in this “electro-optical (EO) payload” are many. The day vidcam now produces 1080p video feeds. The night sensor is FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared sensor), a technology that has been around since the 1980s, and as the heat (infrared) sensing technology became more powerful, it was possible to spot and identify targets at longer ranges. This was accomplished through the development of more sensitive heat sensors, and more powerful computer hardware and software for putting the images together. The new FLIR for CH-4 can identify targets up to 20 kilometers away and enable automatic tracking of distant (up to 18 kilometers) targets. This is made possible by a lot of other improvements like better servo control, inertial guidance inside the EO system, auto focusing and computer controlled image enhancement and identification. This makes possible a much more accurate targeting system for the laser guided missiles the CH-4 carries.

The CH-4 is similar in shape to the 1.2 ton American Predator. The latest version of CH-4 weighs 1.3 tons, has a 14 meter (46 feet) wingspan, and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. It has max altitude of 5,300 meters (16,400 feet) and an endurance of over 35 hours. Max payload (sensors and weapons) is 345 kg (759 pounds). A CH-4 can carry 4 weapons (or electronic devices) under the wings, each weighing up to 100 kg.

China offers Chinese made weapons for the CH-4. Chief among these are a Hellfire clone, the AR-1. This is a 45 kg (99 pound) missile with a max range of 10 kilometers and a 10 kg (22 pound) warhead. AR-1 can be equipped with either GPS or laser guidance. The other weapon is a copy of the American SDB (small diameter bomb) which is a 128 kg (281 pound) GPS guided glide bomb in the shape of a missile with a penetrating warhead. The Chinese version is the FT-5 and is a 100 kg (220 pound) GPS guided bomb in the shape of a missile.

In early 2106 China began marketing a new combat UAV in the “Rainbow” series. The new model is the CH-5, which is similar to the 4.6 ton American MQ-9 Reaper but is a bit lighter (at three tons). The CH-5 has a 900 kg payload and can carry smart (GPS guided) bombs as well as laser guided missiles (similar to the American Hellfire. CH-5 made its first flight in 2015, apparently has endurance of up to twenty hours and is supposed to be available for delivery in late 2016.

The Chinese UAVs are much cheaper (about half the price) than the American originals, but for that you get aircraft and missiles that have not had many of the bugs worked out nor achieved anything like the nearly two decade track record of the Predator. The CH-4 was developed from the earlier (2010) CH-3. This is a 640 kg aircraft with 12 hours endurance and can carry two AR-1 missiles. Thus it is believed that the CH-5 is a scaled up version of the CH-4.

China recently revealed that is had sold military UAVs to ten countries, mainly in the Middle East and Africa. Most of the military UAVs delivered so far have been CH-3s and 200 smaller unarmed UAVs equipped for surveillance and reconnaissance. At the same time China has become the largest exporter of commercial UAVs which are used by police and commercial firms for a wide variety of tasks.

 


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