US Drones Trump China Theatrics

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US Drones Trump China Theatrics

Despite the fanfare surrounding China’s J-20 stealth prototype, the real game-changer in the Pacific will be US spy planes, argues David Axe.

Call it China’s ‘Christmas surprise.’ In a series of grainy photos given a pass by government Internet censors starting December 25, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force unveiled the country’s first stealth fighter prototype, the Chengdu J-20.

For alarmists, the Pacific balance of power seemed to shift in an instant. Armed with hundreds of fast, elusive J-20s in coming years, the PLAAF could dominate the South China Sea, reaffirming China’s rise as a global power and elbowing aside less audacious, tech-savvy rivals. ‘(The) Asia-Pacific’s political landscape will be changed as China’s military capability can win over countries in this region,’ warns Arthur Ding, an analyst based in Taiwan.

In truth, the J-20’s appearance raises more questions than it answers. For a start, it’s unclear what the new fighter is for, how well it might perform, and how easily Beijing might transition the prototype to a mass-produced design.

Still, there’s no arguing with the symbolic power of the J-20’s debut. If nothing else, the first bow of the plane from Chengdu made a statement: The Chinese Communist Party is serious about air power.

That the sleek new fighter might represent the major symbol of a propaganda campaign should come as no surprise. Parades, military exercises and weapons tests represent ‘an effort to remind domestic audiences of the sophistication of the weaponry of the state,’ says US author Jeffrey Wasserstrom, in his book China in the 21st Century. The same principle applies to foreign audiences of China’s elaborate military theatre.

The same doesn’t apply to the country that is arguably China’s greatest strategic rival. With only a few exceptions, the United States exposes its major aerospace developments early, frequently and usually matter-of-factly. The absence of dramatic accoutrement can obscure the potentially profound effects of a new aircraft as much as the presence of drama can exaggerate a plane’s impact on strategy.

Drone Debut

Case in point: in September, the US Air Force introduced an aircraft to one of its major Pacific outposts that will weigh more heavily—and immediately—on the regional balance of power than the J-20 probably ever will. On September 20, the Air Force’s 36th Wing, based in Guam, received the first of three RQ-4B Global Hawk spy drones. The wing marked the occasion with a brief, public ceremony and a press release with photos.

The drone’s Pacific debut was, frankly, boring. But the tedium belied a profound strategic shift. Together, the three Guam-based RQ-4s, plus later reinforcements, will be capable of maintaining non-stop surveillance of vast swaths of the Pacific tens of thousands of miles in area, using a wide range of sensors.

Spy aircraft are nothing new, but spy aircraft of this calibre are new. Being pilotless, the RQ-4 and other drones aren’t limited by a human being’s need to sleep, eat and eliminate, nor by the human body’s physiological limits or the space that it occupies. In short, drones can stay in the air as long as their airframes and fuel supplies allow. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs ‘have an advantage of providing persistence,’ US Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula explains. This persistence means a drone is better able to spot targets and guide in attackers, shrinking what Deptula calls the ‘intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance-strike equation’ to ‘a matter of single-digit minutes.’

In a world where knowledge equals power, the RQ-4 is among the most powerful aircraft ever. And for all its success in producing the J-20 prototype, China appears to have nothing to rival the RQ-4. While Beijing might be closing the gap with Washington as far as loud, visually impressive manned fighter jets are concerned, in the quieter, more subtle and arguably more important world of unmanned aircraft, China is far behind—and possibly losing ground.

US Robot Roster

The airliner-size RQ-4, manufactured by Northrop Grumman, has a long straight wing for efficient, high-altitude flight, and a bulbous nose meant to contain: day- and night-time cameras, a high-fidelity radar, and sensitive receivers for listening in on an enemy’s electromagnetic emissions. A satellite-communications link allows the Global Hawk to feed data to ground stations and, potentially, other aircraft.

Since 2001, the US Air Force has purchased dozens of the $100-million-a-copy Global Hawks and deployed them over Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones. Together, the Air Force and Navy will possess more than 130 RQ-4s in 15 years’ time. Among Asian powers, Australia and Japan also plan to procure Global Hawks. Together, this international drone force could place most of the Pacific under constant observation, tracking the movement and disposition of Chinese forces—particularly warships—and feeding targeting data to allied ships, planes and submarines.

That ability to find and follow enemy warships is exactly what the PLAAF most craves, and which the US military and its allies most fear in China. The PLA’s relentless pursuit of ship-killing DF-21 ballistic missiles and associated reconnaissance satellites—and the United States’ breathless hand-wringing in reaction—best illustrates this dynamic. Ballistic missiles require careful targeting. Careful targeting calls for overlapping ground-, air- and space-based sensors. Large drone aircraft arguably represent the most important component of this surveillance network, and it’s in large drone aircraft that China is weakest and the United States and its allies strongest.

Building on a century of aerospace innovation, and with tens of billions of dollars in developmental funding over at least two decades, plus the urgency instilled by several ongoing wars, the US military has become by far the world leader in unmanned aircraft. Today, the Pentagon possesses some 3000 UAVs, ranging in size from the hand-thrown Raven to the Cessna-size Predator and Reaper (both built by General Atomics), and the much larger Global Hawk.

The roughly 200-strong Predator and Reaper fleet is armed with missiles and bombs in addition to carrying a wide range of sensors; the similarly scaled but less numerous RQ-170 from Lockheed Martin has radar-evading characteristics and might be equipped with ‘electronic attack’ emitters, enabling it to insert computer viruses into enemy networks. In-development drones include Boeing’s Phantom Eye—an even bigger, farther-flying improvement over the Global Hawk—plus no fewer than three fast, armed, unmanned planes intended to replace manned fighter-bombers. 

Beijing’s Bots

Against this, China can boast only a slew of inelegant UAV prototypes. There were about 25 aerial bots on display at the Zhuhai Airshow in southern China last year —all but a handful of them small, Raven-style drones that US analyst John Pike of the Globalsecurity.com think tank describes as ‘easy to do.’

China does, however, possess prototypes for at least four medium-size drones similar in dimension to the Predator and Reaper. These include the Yilong and BZK-005—both propeller-driven like the Predator and Reaper—plus the twin-tail, jet-powered Tianchi that looks like a half-size Global Hawk. The jet-propelled WJ-600 seems to be modelled after a traditional cruise missile, but with the option of carrying its own weapons underwing.

The BZK-005 is the only one of these four drones to show up in a photo depicting a seemingly real-world environment. That photo, leaked onto the Internet in October 2009, showed just two BZK-005s at what appeared to be an active PLAAF airstrip.

The US Predator, arguably the predecessor of all modern medium drones, flew its first combat missions over the Balkans in 1995. At current rates, the PLAAF’s Predator-derivatives won’t be operational until about 20 years after this unmanned debut.

This is to be expected, Pike argues. The Chinese, he says, ‘are about two decades behind the US in military technology, so one would expect them to be about where the US was around 1990.’

Indeed, there’s only one category of UAV where the PLA seems to be gaining on the competition. To complement its ground-launched drones, China is developing an air-launched unmanned aircraft, Ding claims. ‘This UAV…can be launched by its J-10, J-11 and JH-7 fighters’ for use as jammers—that is, emitting radio noise to confuse radar operators on the ground.

The US version of this concept, the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy, entered service in 2009 after a troubled development. Japan, too, is currently flight-testing a similar, fighter-launched UAV called the ‘Tacom.’ But it’s possible China’s drone decoy will enter service in just a few years, meaning a gap of five years or less compared with the US and Japanese models.

China’s Challenges

That one example aside, though, China is some distance behind the United States and other countries in bringing unmanned aircraft into military service. Why? ‘One possible obstacle is probably the engine enabling UAVs to stay in the air for long enough,’ Ding suggests. Propulsion has long vexed the PLAAF. To date, the Chinese aerospace industry hasn’t been able to produce its own high-performance engines. Most Chinese fighters, likely including the J-20, are powered by imported Russian AL-31F motors. For drone propulsion, Beijing is potentially using imported technology. If its UAV engines are indigenous, they probably come with serious limitations in performance and reliability.

‘Another obstacle probably is real-time, on-time delivery of precision photo imagery,’ Ding adds. There’s something in this, too. Beaming data from an airborne robot to other aircraft or stations on the ground requires a secure, reliable, high-bandwidth data-link, the design and maintenance of which challenges even the US military.

The command-and-control signals for UAVs operate on similar principles. If China is having problems receiving imagery from its drones, it’s probably having trouble controlling them, as well. The problem is compounded over long distances, as over-the-horizon UAV operations typically rely on space-based signal relays requiring extensive satellite infrastructure.

For this and other military uses, the Pentagon maintains hundreds of satellites. The PLA, by contrast, possesses just a dozen or so strictly-military spacecraft and several dozen others with mixed civilian and military applications. And while China has recently matched the United States in terms of the sheer number of space launches, its satellites are shorter-lived, so it would need to greatly exceed the US launch rate in order to cut the gap between Chinese and US space infrastructure. The space gap translates into an enduring UAV gap.

So, too, does China’s lack of operational experience. As Pike explains, conceptual and human factors are at least as important as technology when it comes to the military use of unmanned aircraft. ‘The important part of UAVs is how they are integrated with the rest of the battle-space…The one big advantage the US has is the insane number of UAV flight hours that have been racked up over Afghanistan and Iraq…And that has put the US really far out on various learning curves in a way that no other country can approach.’

One lesson the Pentagon learned as it expanded its drone force to meet the demands of current wars was that ‘unmanned’ aircraft actually require lots of manpower. A single Predator or Reaper requires as many as 170 personnel to launch, command, recover and repair, plus handle the imagery it gathers. ‘There’s nothing unmanned about them,’ Deptula says of UAVs.

Today, the US military has tens of thousands of personnel assigned to drone units, many of them with years of combat experience. It’s safe to say that China in contrast hasn’t developed similar human resources. All this means that even if the PLAAF developed and bought, overnight, hundreds of modern aerial drones technologically equal to their US counterparts, it still wouldn’t be able to match the US unmanned air force.

As a consequence, Beijing will probably have little choice but to continue emphasizing aerospace theatrics such as the J-20’s Internet debut. Meanwhile, US Global Hawks and other boring unmanned aircraft will do the understated hard work of actually altering the Pacific balance of power—but in favour of the United States.