China’s Growing High-End Military Drone Force

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China’s Growing High-End Military Drone Force

China’s People’s Liberation Army is deploying increasingly sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles.

China’s Growing High-End Military Drone Force

A Chinese military truck carrying an aerial vehicle rolls during a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

The 2019 National Day parade held on October 1 was punctuated by the debuts of a number of new systems, some of the most consequential being a various unmanned aerial vehicles/unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UAVs/UCAVs). Recent years have seen the introduction of a variety of new UAVs in Chinese military (PLA) service as well, some of which have parallels to foreign equivalents. This marks a useful time to review some of the PLA’s UAVs and what the future of PLA drone development may hold.

Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones

Medium Altitude Long Endurance drones can be described as UAVs with a service ceiling of below 9,000 meters and capable of flying a relatively long endurance of up to 24 hours or longer. These UAVs tend to be powered by propeller engines rather than jet engines. Well-known international MALE drones include the MQ-1 and MQ-9 from the United States or the Heron system from Israel.

The PLA’s current in-service MALE drone fleet consists of three main types. The BZK-005 is a twin boom UAV thought to be in service with both the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force, and may be known as “Sea Eagle” and “Giant Eagle” respectively. It is equipped with an electro-optic (EO) turret that appears to be its primary sensor. The BZK-005 also appeared as a display at the 2015 parade marking Japan’s defeat in World War II.

The GJ-1 and GJ-2 are MALE UAVs capable of the strike role and are the domestic in-service variants of the original export oriented Wing Loong I and Wing Loong II systems. Both GJ-1 and GJ-2 are equipped with EO turrets and the ability to launch small air-to-ground missiles, namely the KD-9/10 laser guided anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) family. Being a larger aircraft, GJ-2 is able to carry a larger payload and is also thought to be equipped with a chin mounted synthetic aperture radar to further enhance target acquisition. GJ-1 and GJ-2 are considered to be the PLA’s equivalents of MQ-1 and MQ-9, respectively. GJ-2 was present at the 2019 National Day parade as a display.

Unfortunately, the total number of in-service BZK-005s, GJ-1s, and GJ-2s is not known, but it is certainly much lower than the number of MALE drones in U.S. service.

High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drones

High Altitude Long Endurance drones are UAVs with a service ceiling that can approach 18,000 meters; however, similar to MALE drones, there is no universal definition for either HALE or MALE UAVs. HALE drones tend to be powered by jet engines, and tend to be more expensive and comparatively larger than MALE equivalents. The most well-known international HALE drone systems would be the U.S. RQ/MQ-4 Global Hawk and Triton family.

The PLA operates one major type of HALE drone, dubbed with various names over the years including Soaring Dragon, EA-03, and WZ-7. For this piece, the name WZ-7 will be used. This aircraft uses a unique box wing design, with twin tails and a dorsally mounted jet engine. A few photos of WZ-7 prototypes being tested emerged around 2012; however, pictures of the aircraft in service taken from the ground have remained elusive. The service status of this aircraft has been confirmed in the last few years by satellite pictures showing the presence of WZ-7s deployed to various different airbases around China, such as the deployment of WZ-7s to Tibet during the Doklam standoff with India in 2017, as well as the presence of WZ-7s based in the South China Sea. More recently nine WZ-7s were seen at a single airbase in Jilin province facing the Korean Peninsula.

Production of WZ-7s is thought to be active and ongoing, but similar to the PLA’s MALE drones, the exact number of WZ-7s in service not known, nor is their organizational structure.

The other major HALE drone being pursued by the PLA is a large, twin joined hull aircraft commonly called Divine Eagle. The aircraft is thought to be an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) UAV, where the joined hull design may allow for installation of conformal radar arrays on the sides and perhaps the front surfaces of the fuselage. Photos of a prototype emerged in 2015, but no pictures and little information as to the development and testing of the aircraft have emerged since then. In 2017, satellite images suggested additional aircraft were being produced, and a satellite picture in 2018 revealed the presence of an airframe at a PLA Air Force base where it was likely being evaluated. However, the Divine Eagle is currently not thought to be in service in the way WZ-7 is.

GJ-11 and WZ-8

The GJ-11 stealthy UCAV and WZ-8 supersonic reconnaissance UAV were both unveiled at the 2019 National Day parade, and I summarized their roles and capabilities in a previous article. Their presence at the parade signifies that both systems have entered service in some form, as only in-service systems are displayed at the National Day parade.

One of the most noteworthy takeaways from GJ-11 and WZ-8 appearing at the parade is how little information and virtually no pictures were released during their development periods, which was likely to have lasted a number of years. In the case of GJ-11 (then known as Sharp Sword), the first prototype emerged in early 2013 and first flew in November 2013; however, afterwards there were no new pictures of the aircraft in testing, nor were there even any satellite pictures of the aircraft spotted. The aircraft reemerged as a static mock up in the 2019 National Day parade, leaving the PLA watching community none the wiser as to the project’s journey over the last six years.

The WZ-8 was similarly opaque. While the community was aware of the development of some sort of supersonic reconnaissance UAV in the last few years, the configuration and sensor fit were not known, and no pictures of the WZ-8 were leaked apart from a blurry satellite image in 2018 of the aircraft at an airbase. Furthermore, even the propulsion method of the WZ-8 was not confirmed, as it was initially believed to be powered by a ramjet, but its appearance at the National Day parade all but confirmed it was some sort of rocket-based system as it lacked any discernible air intake.

GJ-11 and WZ-8, as well as some other UAV projects like WZ-7 and Divine Eagle, all demonstrated a paucity of information and pictures during their development cycle. This naturally reflects a desire to keep the development of these projects relatively secret and reflects a high degree of operational security, but it may also reflect the greater ease to which unmanned aircraft development may be hidden from view compared to manned aircraft. Regardless of the reason, the PLA’s variety of in-service and under-development high-end UAVs, suggests the PLA has their own equivalent of more clandestine, black project type testing and development cycles, beyond the “standard” degree of PLA operational security.

UAVs to watch

There are a number of various high-end UAVs known to have entered PLA service or known to be in development, but some types may prove more consequential than others. It is well known that the PLA is seeking to close the technological and capability gap with other leading military powers such as the United States, as well as to develop systems that are able to fulfill its foreseeable military requirements in an effective way.

The GJ-11 is obviously the most technologically impressive UAV observed so far, and also the most secretive. The GJ-11 shown at the National Day parade was an obvious mockup (as were a number of other displays, including other smaller UAVs, missile systems, and close-in weapons systems, among others); however, its mere presence at the parade suggests it has finished development and entered service. GJ-11 is a stealthy UCAV with a deep strike purpose, and estimates of its dimensions would make it slightly larger than the European Neuron demonstrator and about the size of the Boeing Phantom Ray demonstrator. Such a UCAV would likely have a combat radius of over 1,000 km, and if photos of an AVIC model are accurate, its total internal weapons carriage capacity should be able to accommodate either two 500 kg guided bombs or eight 100 kg guided bombs.

Despite articles written from some outlets, there are currently no indications that a carrierborne derivative of GJ-11 is under development. The standard GJ-11 is not compatible with carrier operations either, as it lacks a number of key features like folding wings, tailhook, and reinforced landing gear. However, the estimated size, range, and payload of GJ-11 would still make it useful for regional missions when deployed from airbases in China.

More importantly, the GJ-11 could present itself as a viable first generation “high-end” UCAV to develop, test, and refine key subsystems and technologies that may be needed for future warfare involving UCAVs. China, the U.S., Europe, and Russia, are all researching future aerial warfare concepts, and virtually all these concepts include automated UCAVs in some form. Depending on how widely produced GJ-11 is, it could form an important base of knowledge and development for concepts such as autonomous mission execution, autonomous swarming, manned-unmanned-teaming (MUMT)/loyal wingman, as well as more dispersed and redundant sensor/shooter concepts. Software and avionics tested and verified aboard a mature and in-service GJ-11 fleet could then be duplicated aboard more capable UAV and UCAV designs.

The Divine Eagle AEW UAV may also prove to be an important high-end UAV platform. An AEW UAV offers many tantalizing prospects to augment or even significantly augment existing manned AEW&C platforms, whereby the unmanned nature of the platform may allow for more persistent AEW coverage, as well as offer more distributed and redundant capability. AEW UAVs could also be deployed into battlespaces too dangerous for a manned AEW&C to venture into.

There are also some other, more elusive UAV projects that have been rumored over the years. The most notable of these, is the “Anjian” (or “Dark Sword”) UCAV. This delta winged, canard equipped concept was displayed in model form at a number of air shows during the 2000s, before seemingly disappearing from public view for a number of years. Then in mid-2018, a picture of what appeared to be a full scale mockup of Dark Sword made its way onto the internet, seemingly with AVIC logos emblazoned upon it, and a number of individuals standing in front, yet lacking any additional context. Originally spoken of as an air-to-air UCAV in the 2000s, some not fully concrete rumors suggest Dark Sword is now being pursued in some manner. This would not be surprising, given it is likely the PLA should now be pursuing MUMT and air-to-air UCAV technologies, but needless to say the project’s continued development is not confirmed.

International aerial warfare trends all appear to incorporate increasingly complex UAV and UCAV systems. The opaque nature of PLA weapons developments means it is naturally difficult to confirm the exact status of their UAV projects. Still, the assessment of pictures, rumors, and occasional official releases allows for some useful estimates as outlined in this piece. Going forward, the total fleet size of different UAV types will provide strong hints as to the direction of the PLA’s UAV goals, particularly the fleet size of higher end UAVs such as HALE UAVs and stealthy UCAVs.