It was another big week for China’s aerospace industry. Leaked photos, apparently taken in Chengdu, confirmed the existence of a large Unmanned Aerial Vehicle sporting a rare ‘joined-wing’ configuration.
‘US analysts are already suggesting that the new Chinese UAV design – with its 60,000-foot. cruising altitude, 300-mile radar surveillance range and, possibly, lower radar reflectivity if made from the right composites – could serve as the targeting node for China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles,’ journalist and aviation expert Bill Sweetman wrote.
Just a few days earlier, the Japanese Defence Ministry published a photo of a small UAV that could represent China's first operational drone. The roughly 12-foot-long aircraft was spotted flying over a Chinese warship during the People's Liberation Army Navy’s annual training cruise in the Pacific Ocean.
Equally revealing was a state-sponsored profile of one of the people behind China’s rapid development as an air power. The article, in the official Science and Technology Daily journal, summarized the career of Yang Wei, chief developer of several of China’s recent fighter designs, possibly including the J-20 stealth fighter that appeared for the first time on Christmas Day.
Yang gained admission to Northwestern Polytechnical University in 1978 at the age of 15 and, seven years and at least two degrees later, joined the Chengdu design bureau, specializing in control systems. He did design work on the J-10 fighter and the JF-17, which was co-developed with Pakistan.
His career echoed the early struggles, and accelerating success, of the Chinese aerospace industry.
In 1998, Yang’s work took an unexpected turn when the fuel system on a J-10 prototype failed, forcing a comprehensive redesign. The J-10’s progress boosted work on the JF-17, and vice versa – ‘parallel model development,’ the article calls it. That cross-pollination can now be seen across Chinese military aviation, with more and more fighters and drones in advanced stages of testing.
The goal, of course, is to forge an industry capable of producing advanced warplanes without foreign assistance – ‘break(ing) the blockade of foreign technology,’ according to the article. As such, Yang’s work is incomplete. For all the advances in basic design, China's homegrown warplanes still largely rely on foreign-supplied engines.
When China reliably produces its own advanced aircraft engines, it will make for a news story bigger than any new drone or the accomplishments of a veteran engineer.