The U.S. Air force is modifying the MQ-9 Reaper fire control and weapons attachment systems so this 4.7 ton UAV can carry and deliver the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB II GBU-39B). The 130 kg (285 pound) SDB entered service in 2006. While the original SBD would land within 5-8 meters (16-25 feet) of the aiming point the SDB II can also be laser guided and land within a meter (three feet). The SBD II entered service 2016 and also has an encrypted data link that enables the UAV operator to guide the SDB, with great precision to hit even a moving target. The SDB is basically an unpowered missile which can glide long distances. The small wings allow the SDB to glide up to 70-80 kilometers. SDB also has a hard front end that can punch through nearly three meters (eight feet) of rock or concrete and a warhead that does less damage than the usual dumb bomb (explosives in a metal casing). That’s because the SDB warhead carries only 17 kg (38 pounds) of explosives, compared to 127 kg (280 pounds) in the 500 pound bomb.
The MQ-9 is 11.6 meters (36 feet) long with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan and looks like the earlier MQ-1 Predator. MQ-9 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) JDAM smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in many situations. In 2017 the MQ-9 was modified to handle JADM and the upgrade to handle SDB will be ready by 2021.
The Reaper and Predator were always potentially capable of handling a wider array of weapons but there was no demand from the users (mainly the U.S. military and some NATO allies). The Hellfire missile got the job done. But now China is adding more options to its UAVs and the American manufacturer feels a need to respond in order to hang onto export customers.
When it comes to upgrading MQ-9 weapons capabilities the Chinese have already shown the way with their Predator and Reaper clones. In early 2017 China announced two upgrades to its CH-4 UAV. This is the Chinese version of the Predator 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 operated via satellite data link, like Predators and Reapers have always been. This includes firing laser guided missiles and other weapons. 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 CH-4 FLIR 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 the FT-5, which is a 100 kg (220 pound) copy of the American SDB.
In early 2106 China began marketing a new combat UAV in the “Rainbow” series; 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 has sold large military UAVs to at least ten countries, mainly in the Middle East and Africa. Most of the military UAVs delivered are unarmed and equipped for surveillance and reconnaissance, or purely commercial tasks (like crop management or exploration for new raw materials. China points out that its UAVs are widely used (especially inside China) for police work and border patrol. Aside from price Chinese UAVs have other advantages. American firms cannot export armed UAVs that do not observe American ROEs (Rules of Engagement). The U.S. will not sell armed UAVs to many nations.
China does not care about ROEs or what you do with their UAVs, and are willing to pay additional sales fees (bribes) that most Western nations have outlawed. Although China is selling clones, they have been doing that for over half a century and have many satisfied customers. First the Chinese copied Russian designs but once they introduced the free market (and had legal access to Western manufacturing tech) they began doing knockoffs of Western designs of aircraft, small arms, and even ships. Most Americans are familiar with the handbags and other Chinese luxury goods that are clones, but Chinese manufacturers have cloned a wide variety of industrial and military items. It is not as good as the originals but is a lot cheaper, sold to anyone who can pay and often good enough to get the job done. As the old saying goes, “good enough is the enemy of better.” This is especially true if “good enough” is a lot cheaper and has no strings attached.