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M. Szymański - Chinese market for military drones - setting the trends for the future

M. Szymański - Chinese market for military drones - setting the trends for the future

At the end of last year China used the opportunity of the Global Fortune Forum (December 2017, Guangzhou) to amaze the world with the sophistication of technology it can produce. In one of the shows celebrating that event, a group of more than 1000 small drones performed an airshow basing on a sequence of several formation flights. The coordinated flight of 1108 drones set a new world record to China.

Marcin Szymański

ZBN Commentary

No. 8 (32) / 2018

11 April 2018

© 2018 Uniwersytet Jagielloński &Marcin Szymański


At the end of last year China used the opportunity of the Global Fortune Forum (December 2017, Guangzhou) to amaze the world with the sophistication of technology it can produce. In one of the shows  celebrating that event, a group of more than 1000 small drones performed an airshow basing on a sequence of several formation flights. The coordinated flight of 1108 drones set a new world record to China. However, with the eye of a military observer, the performance conveyed a much more important message. To say that the group of these small unmanned objects was engaged in the formation flight is not enough. The drones were operating in an orchestrated way, being connected through one command-and-control system. Such arrangement, known in a military narrative as “swarm”, enables the use of several autonomous flying objects to conduct one collective task. This capability is currently pursued by research and development (R&D) branches of the most developed armed forces, with the U.S. Navy's Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology project being one of the examples. The 2017 Guangzhou show indicated that Chinese experts are extremely advanced on their way to mature swarm technology. It is also a proof of commitment which China gives to the development of unmanned combat vehicles. Analysts and media have recorded several events throughout the past few years indicating unconventional Chinese approach to military robotics – some of these trends are inspiring and certainly deserve an extensive examination

The origins of modern Chinese drone industry date back to the early 1980s. More than three decades of dynamic development have resulted in the creation of a whole fleet of successful structures. Currently, the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) operates numerous types of unmanned aerial aircrafts (UAV) with the CH-4 likely to be the most versatile and heavily used. As a typical medium altitude long endurance (MALE) airframe, the structure resembles to a high degree the U.S.–made MQ-9 Reaper. The CH-4 is exported to several countries, it was battle-tested in various scenarios by different users. Its combat effectiveness is strongly appreciated by the Iraqi army which has deployed it against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Sham) ground targets in the course of the last two years. Despite considerable sophistication of the current UAV fleet, the PLA has invested heavily in the development of future unmanned aerial systems. The research, despite being focused on the evolution of contemporary airframes, is also oriented toward innovative and unconventional projects. Swarm technology has been the object of interest from the Chinese R&D community for a long time. Last year, it culminated in two important events which set milestones in swarm-related research programs. In June 2017 the Chinese Electronic Technology Group Corporation announced a successful completion of a collective task by a group of 120 UAVs. Unmanned vehicles reportedly conducted their mission as a swarm with some tasks requiring the group to divide into subsections. In December 2017 scientists of the PLA’s National University of Defense Science and Technology conducted the first successful test of the military deployment of a swarm of drones. According to open–source information, twenty fixed-wing UAVs performed collectively a simulated reconnaissance mission. Analysts claim that the PLA’s R&D departments are involved in several other classified projects related to swarm technology. The examples include a research program aiming to enable the long-range CH-5 drone to communicate with other long- and medium-range drones to conduct collective missions. If China remains committed to these programs, the PLA may obtain in the nearest future a significant capability advantage in the areas of intelligence gathering, kinetic targeting and electronic warfare.

However, swarm technology is not the only asset used by the Chinese constructors to stay ahead of the competitors in the military drone market. Throughout the last few years Beijing has invested heavily in research programs related to stealth technology. Analytic reports indicate that the Cloud Shadow UAV currently represents the most popular one among made-in-China stealth unmanned airframes. The aircraft classified as a high altitude long endurance (HALE) was publicly presented at the Zhuhai Airshow in 2016. The materials used and the composition of hull panels make the Cloud Shadow a stealth aircraft. It is powered by a turbo jet engine which brings the top speed to 620 kph, operating altitude to 14,000 meters and mission endurance up to 6 hours. This UAV is offered for export in two versions: as an intelligence gathering and a strike platform. It can be equipped with a variety of weapons, including light cruise missiles and smart bombs. Chinese constructors are also involved in more futuristic programs related to stealth technology. During the 2018 Singapore airshow the Star Systems company presented a model of  the “Star Shadow”. The drone is featured by characteristic “flying wing” concept and it resembles to some degree the American X-47B prototype. The project is supposedly highly advanced – several media published a picture of the research team in front of the full-scale prototype. It is not clear for the time being what would be the mission profile of the aircraft. However, the reports indicate that the “Star Shadow” will be capable of 10-12 hours endurance and a payload of approximately 400 kgs. Such parameters make this drone suitable both for intelligence and precision strike options.

The SW6 is another UAV representing an unconventional approach of Chinese constructors to the technology development. The drone of 23 kgs weight is specifically designed as a portable device, carried and launched from manned airframes. Folding wing which is a special feature of the SW6 enables the drone to be attached to weapon pods of fixed and rotary wing aircrafts. With the range of 40 kms, the UAV is dedicated mostly to reconnaissance missions. In the most widely reported employment mode, it is integrated with the Chinese light attack helicopter Z11WB. However, some sources claim that groups of these drones can be launched from a board of a large aircraft.

Despite the typical use for intelligence and combat purposes, the Chinese constructors also explore several other less popular areas of drone applications. The Tengoen Technology company focused its research programs on large-size aerial vehicles. The producer has announced a plan to build the world’s biggest cargo UAV by the year 2020. The prototype appears to be an eight-engine aircraft configured around the twin-fuselage concept with an attachable cargo unit. The expected payload of this impressive airframe is to be 20 tons approximately. With the range of 4660 miles the drone is supposed to carry out resupply, aerial refueling, intelligence and electronic warfare missions. Its flexibility will also open up space for a number of non-military applications, such as firefighting.

With the Chinese civilian drones market already being at the world’s top ratings, Beijing has displayed high potential for capturing leadership in the military UAV industry. Unconventional and futuristic concepts certainly will play a crucial role in the struggle for a dominant position in the market. Chinese products presented at air shows and exhibitions represent a very high degree of technical sophistication. What is also very important, their prices and maintenance costs are extremely competitive. Numerous articles and reports published in the United States and Europe include a worrisome narrative which centers around potential economic effects of expansion of the Chinese UAV sector. Concerns are also expressed within military analytic community since the R&D branches of traditional leaders seem to lag behind Beijing’s massive investments. It is not a mistake to say that Chinese drones’ constructors are setting the trends for the future. It also seems to be worth to explore and follow some of these innovative paths.


Picture: Chinese fixed wing drones before swarm technology tests



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