The Chinese Navy's annual sortie through the disputed waters between the Japanese islands Okinawa and Miyakojima held a surprise for foreign observers. Japanese forces tailing the 11-strong Chinese fleet spotted a previously unknown Chinese weapon system: a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, apparently launched from the deck of a Chinese warship.
The Japan Security Watch blog first highlighted the drone report originally published by the Japanese Defence Ministry. Although China is known to be developing several small and large UAVs for military use, none has been seen in an operational environment.
The so-called ‘Miyako Run,’ first conducted last April, serves several purposes for the People's Liberation Army Navy. It's a statement by Beijing that it hasn’t given up its claim to several small islands in the East China Sea that Japan also claims. It's also an opportunity for the PLAN to test its navigation, logistics and combat skills – and now, new technology.
After passing through the Miyako Strait on June 8 and 9, the Chinese fleet reportedly conducted target practice and refueling training in the Pacific Ocean, roughly 1,000 miles south of Okinawa. A Japanese patrol plane, presumably a P-3 Orion, photographed the UAV overflying a Type 053HG frigate as the fleet was sailing back home after two weeks in the Pacific.
The drone appears to be a small, fixed-wing design, similar to the 1980s-vintage RQ-2 Pioneer used by the US Navy. The 14-foot-long US drone was launched via a small rocket from the decks of battleships and recovered in a net. Using rudimentary cameras and radio data-links, it helped spot over-the-horizon targets for the vessels’ 16-inch guns.
Pioneers famously assisted in the battleship USS Missouri's bombardment of Iraqi coastal forces during the 1991 Gulf War. When the battleships were decommissioned following that war, the Pioneers briefly flew from amphibious ships before becoming strictly land-based assets. Today, the similarly-sized Scan Eagle drone, launched via catapult, flies from US amphibious ships, while the Fire Scout drone helicopter flies from frigates. Both types are primarily reconnaissance systems, although the Fire Scout can carry weapons.
The Chinese drone probably also performs a surveillance and targeting function, specifically for long-range anti-ship missiles. The Chinese warships present on the Miyako Run carry several types of ship-killing missiles. The Type 053HG carries the YJ-83 missile, while the larger Project 956 destroyer carries anti-ship missiles with the NATO designation SS-N-22.
Both missiles have ranges in excess of 100 miles, well beyond the horizon for most warships. China probably possesses a small-scale satellite constellation for naval targeting over the western Pacific, but it could be inadequate for reliable missile-targeting over a large area. A ship-launched drone could help fill in the gaps in the satellite coverage.
It’s not clear how the Chinese drone is launched and recovered, or which vessel hosts the system. Nor is it clear how many naval drones China possesses, how sophisticated they are and whether they are experimental assets or intended for widespread use.