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China’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles development in general corresponds to global trends. Though in view of its technological lag that existed until recently, Beijing emphasized copying US and Israeli craft.
China, however, has made a qualitative leap in the last 10-15 years in establishing its own UAV scientific and technological infrastructure. The new Chinese UAV types are equal, and in some respects even superior to their US equivalents. They have a competitive price and, therefore, high export potential. This is true, for example, for the reconnaissance CH-5 (Caihong-5).
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) UAVs’ tasks and missions are likewise similar to the US ones. Their main functions are:
- Target designation;
- Missile strikes on land targets;
Today such craft are mainly used in operations against asymmetrical and, as a rule, technologically less well equipped adversaries like small states, contested grounds via indirect war by proxy, terrorist/rebel forces, etc. At the same time, given the current level of technology, it’s difficult to imagine a conflict among big players without massive UAV use.
Unlike the US, China does not have its own wealth of experience in UAV combat use, though some believe that Chinese drones used, for example, in Myanmar and Laos, are flown by Chinese operators. The PLA actively uses drones for surveillance of maritime and land borders, and for combating piracy.
UAVs play a big role in PLA’s missions in pursuit of Chinese regional and global interests. Beijing seeks to create military capabilities enabling it to act effectively both in indirect and direct clashes with a technologically advanced adversary, which first and foremost includes the United States. Therefore China’s military and political leaders have pursued the development of novel weapons types, including supersonic and hypersonic UAVs.
One of such future UAV development paths is the AVIC 601-S program. It had led to the construction of such experimental vehicles as Sky Crossbow, Wind Blade, Cloud Bow, Warrior Eagle, Sharp Sword, and Dark Sword. Chinese scientists are actively experimenting on various layout schemes (flying wing, forward-swept wings, etc.) and technological innovations in order to arrive at optimal solutions for UAVs, in order to increase their speed, maneuverability, and stealth.
The Dark Sword (Anjian), whose photos appeared in the media in early June, is a qualitatively different UAV, according to expert assessments.
Dark Sword’s conceptual model was initially demonstrated to the public in 2006 a the Chkhuhai airshow in the Guandong Province, and at the 47th International Air Salon at Le Bourget in 2007. Alleged Dark Sword flight photos appeared later, in 2011, but their veracity is doubtful.
The Dark Sword was being developed by the Shenyang Aeroplane Design Institution as part of the aforementioned AVIC 601-S program. Its development and production costs are unknown.
The limited information available in open sources makes it difficult to draw accurate conclusions concerning its characteristics, which led some to claim it is capable of hypersonic speeds. Updated conclusions and assumptions have been made mainly on the basis of a Dark Sword photo which appeared in the Internet.
This UAV’s design indicates Chinese engineers were aiming to achieve:
- high speed and flight radius;
- reduced radar observability;
According to some estimates Dark Sword can reach Mach 1, though others claim it’s Mach 2. This is suggested by the tail control surfaces and also the Diverterless Supersonic Inlet (DSI). Its use allows to reduce air resistance at high speeds and radar observability. Similar technologies ae being used on the Chengdu J-20 and J-31 fighters, and on the US F-35 Lightning II.
Dark Sword ought to have high maneuverability thanks to its canard layout and twin vertical stabilizers. Its stealth is enhanced by the use of radar-absorbing materials and the above-mentioned DSI air intakes. It’s believed Dark Sword could be produced in two variants, manned and unmanned. It will most likely be armed by the most advanced Chinese missiles, such as the PL-15 and its variants.
Experts’ views on the Dark Sword development vary. According to the Military Watch Magazine, Dark Sword could enter operational use in the near future and thus become the world’s first 6th-generation fighter. It can’t be ruled out, however, this is only an experimental testbed to test a variety of next-generation technologies. Justin Bronk at RUSI notes that “we only see that which the Chinese want us to see”. Therefore we can’t assess the veracity of the photograph or reflect on the circumstances in which it was made. Thus it is unknown whether China is actually financing a project which will soon reach its completion phase, or is merely trying to induce other countries to spend money on similar costly projects with uncertain future.
It is highly probable that the Dark Sword and other AVIC 601-S program vehicles are mainly experimental. But if Dark Sword becomes an operational weapon, it will have a fundamental impact on the wars of the future.
The Chinese UAV could be used not only for reconnaissance and ground target strikes as part of the existing UAV doctrine, but also break through enemy defenses and strike deep targets. It could operate independently as a strike UAV or as part of a force package, supporting piloted aircraft.
Given its extended range, it can be used to attack land, air (including other UAVs) and naval targets, for example, carrier battlegroups. Dark Sword could be further developed for aircraft carrier operations.
Dark Sword will become a delivery vehicle for various weapons, including long-range air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles, but in the future also lasers. It could also carry mobile and highly effective electronic warfare systems to disrupt land forces, air, and naval communications systems. One has to consider the possibility Dark Sword could be used as a “suicide” UAV, but that’s not as likely considering its cost.
UAV operator training should take less time and money than pilot training, since their level of qualifications is much lower.
Other countries could respond to the Chinese challenge in several ways.
From the technical point of view, other countries will seek to create similar high-speed UAVs in conjunction with already existing systems. This approach would require considerable expenditure and time. It’s highly likely the US will continue the development of own hypersonic technologies.
Another approach is improving air defense, electronic warfare, and, possibly, lasers, capable of “burning” its electronic payloads. Since UAVs depend on communications systems, this appears to be the optimal approach. Russia, which lags in UAV development, will seek to improve its electronic warfare systems which have traditionally been the Russian MIC’s strong suit. The US will do the same.
From the point of view of military planning, there will occur a reconceptualization and perfecting of existing approaches. Particular emphasis will be placed on reconnaissance and intelligence efforts to locate UAV command posts and strike them using all available weapons.
China thus managed to establish an industrial foundation over the last few decades to produce own UAVs. This is a manifestation of China’s political strategy and is driven by Beijing’s desire to consolidate its position as a superpower technologically on a par with the US. As already existing models enter service and future projects are developed (for example, improved air-to-air missiles and others), China will greatly improve its standing both on a regional and global scale.
China’s ability and readiness to perform a wide range of missions in regions with high conflict potential will also increase. At the same time, China’s main competitors and potential adversaries will also grow concerned with Beijing’s ascendancy, potentially leading to an escalation of global tensions.