Warplanes: How China Helped Liberate Mosul

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April 4, 2018: In February Iraq released video of its Chinese CH-4B UAVs, which are similar to the American Predator. This confirmed what had long been known, that Iraq had been using several CH-4Bs since 2015. With the release of the video Iraq also revealed that these UAVs have carried out nearly 300 airstrikes but spend most of their air time carrying out surveillance. The CH-4Bs can be armed with a Chinese version of the American Hellfire laser guided missile.

This was not the first appearance of the CH-4 in the region. The UAE had already bought some and in 2017 Saudi Arabia agreed to have a Chinese firm set up an assembly plant for combat UAVs in Saudi Arabia. The Middle East has been a major export market for these UAVs and since 2015 Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both been using Chinese UAVs in Yemen combat operations. The most popular of these is the CH-4, which is similar to the American Predator. Pakistan has also been using CH-4s in combat. These Chinese UAVs sell well because many nations have been unable to buy similar American UAVs. The Americans feared that UAV secrets would be sold to enemies of the United States or that the UAVs would be used to carry out war crimes. China saw this as an opportunity.

The CH-4B is an armed version of the original CH-4 that weighs 1.3 tons and has a payload of 350 kg (770 pounds) compared to 115 kg (255 pounds) in the CH-4. All versions can be operated by a local controller and can operate up to 250 kilometers from the operator. In 2016 China announced two major upgrades to the CH-4 that were much awaited by users. This included the optional ability to be controlled via satellite. This includes firing laser guided missiles. CH-4 also received 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 the 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 and CH-4B are similar in shape to the 1.2 ton American Predator, 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 (if minimal payload is carried). Max payload (sensors and weapons) for the C-4B is 350 kg which enables it to carry 4 weapons (or electronic devices) under the wings, each weighing up to 100 kg. This reduces endurance but as a practical matter most UAVs of this size rarely stay out for more than 20 hours.

Iraq revealed that China initially provided operators and ground crews with the CH-4s and these enabled Iraqi operators and ground crews to literally learn on the job. This included using Chinese made laser guided missiles. 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. Having CH-4s in Iraq enabled the CH-4 to get its first combat experience and by 2016 Iraqi operators were using armed CH-4Bs to attack ground targets in support of Iraqi troops. This capability was used frequently during the battle for Mosul which involved a lot of action as Iraqi forces closed in on the city in mid-2016 and moved into Mosul itself in late 2016. That battle went on into mid-2017. While the American supported Kurdish forces advanced from the north using American MQ-9 Reapers the Iraqi forces for support from those as well as the CH-4Bs. This gave American forces a chance to see the CH-4B in action and they confirmed that the CH-4B was comparable in performance to the U.S. Predator, which was being phased out and replaced by the larger (4.7 ton) Reapers.

In early 2106 China began marketing a new combat UAV in the “Rainbow” series; the CH-5. This one is similar to the 4.6 ton American MQ-9 Reaper but a bit lighter at three tons. The CH-5 has a 900 kg payload and used the same weapons as the CH-4B CH-5 made its first flight in 2015, apparently has endurance of up to twenty hours and it entered service in 2017.

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 as 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.

In 2016 China 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. The Iraqi experience with the CH-4B convinced many Arab countries that China had developed suitable substitutes for the American armed UAVs and that helped sales quite a lot, including the deal to open a CH-4 assembly and maintenance facility in Saudi Arabia. At least one of the UAE CH-4s was shot down by Iran-backed Shia rebels in Yemen during September 2016 but none appear to have been lost over Iraq.

 


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