Saudi Arabia has 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 fear that UAV secrets will be sold to enemies of the United States or that the UAVs will be used to support war crimes. China saw this as an opportunity.
The new Chinese UAV plant will not only assemble UAVs but will also provide repairs, major maintenance and upgrades. In 2016 China announced two major upgrades to the CH-4 that were much awaited by users. While CH-4 entered service in 2011 as part of the “Rainbow” series of UAVs it was missing some key capabilities of the Predator. The new updates enable a CH-4 to 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, 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 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 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 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.