Warplanes: China Goes After Reaper


July 4, 2017: China is offering for export a UAV described as direct competitor to the American MQ-9 Reaper. The Chinese version is the GJ-1 UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle). This is a combat version of the Wing Loong 2 UAV and made its first flight as the GJ-1 in February. In June several of them were seen in Tibet, near the Indian border and described as the GJ-1. This version of the Wing Loong 2 has five hard points for air-to-ground weapons. The GJ-1 is described as being able to carry up to 16 missiles. That is made possible by the new smaller AR-2 laser guided missile that weighs 17 kg (40 pounds) and can use a special rack that hangs from one hard point and carries four AR-2s, which also have 8 kilometer range. There is a similar rack that can carry two BA-7 (Hellfire size) missiles off one hard point. Max payload of the GJ-1 is 600 kg (1,300 pounds) but around 20 percent of that is taken up by the cameras, communication and fire control system (including laser designator). The rest is for weapons.

The GJ-1 is chasing after the market the MQ-9 Reaper has created since it entered service in 2007. MQ-9 is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meters (36 foot) long aircraft with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan that has six hard points and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg (500 pound) smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is now over 40 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in many situations.

The original Wing Loong 1 (that's Chinese for Pterodactyl, a Jurassic period flying dinosaur) UAV entered service in 2008 and was basically a Chinese version of the American MQ-1 Predator that entered service in 1995 but did not start using weapons until 2001. Both Predator and Wing Loong 1 could fire two laser guided missiles (Hellfire for MQ-1 and BA-7 for Wing Loong 1. In in place of the BA-7 the Wing Loong 1 could carry or two 60 kg (110 pound) GPS guided bombs (similar to the U.S. SDB).

Although Wing Loong 1 entered service with the Chinese military in 2008 this turned out to be over three years of field testing because it was not offered for export until 2012. Wing Loong 1 was first seen in flight, over the capital of Uzbekistan, in 2012. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Uzbekistan were the first export customers. It was later revealed that development on Wing Loong began in 2005, first flight was in 2007 and Chinese troops got the first ones in 2008 for further testing, not combat use.

While Wing Loong 1 is similar in shape to the larger American MQ-9 Reaper, in size it's almost identical to the 1.2 ton MQ-1 Predator. Wing Loong 1 weighs 1.1 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), max speed of 270 kilometers an hour and an endurance of over 20 hours. Payload is 200 kg.

Wing Loong 2 is a little smaller than the MQ-9 with a wingspan of 20.5 meters (66 feet), top speed of 370 kilometers an hour, endurance of 20 hours and comes equipped with satellite link (which was an option on Wing Loong 1). Wing Loong 2 has an improved aerodynamic, sturdier airframe and improved flight control software.

For several decades a growing number of Chinese commercial firms have been developing military UAVs and dual use commercial UAVs. Unlike most Western nations, China will sell military UAVs to anyone who can pay and is not bothered about the use of bribes and other illegal (in the West) payments. In other words, Wing Loong is priced to move.