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China’s Unmanned Aircraft Evolve from Figment to Reality

Nov. 26, 2012 - 07:42AM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
China's UAVs have grown more teeth, according to the evidence on hand at this year's Zhuhai airshow, an event that has expanded exponentially since its debut in 1996. Shown here is the CH-4, built by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.
China's UAVs have grown more teeth, according to the evidence on hand at this year's Zhuhai airshow, an event that has expanded exponentially since its debut in 1996. Shown here is the CH-4, built by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (Wendell Minnick / Staff)
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ZHUHAI, China — China’s UAVs have grown more teeth, according to the evidence on hand at this year’s Zhuhai airshow, an event that has expanded exponentially since its debut in 1996.

When UAVs began popping up at the biennial aviation exhibition, they were mere models, figments of an engineer’s ambition and imagination. One of the first to appear in model form, in 2006, was Shenyang’s Dark Sword (Anjian) unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). The Anjian caused wild speculation among aviation analysts and journalists. The stealthy strike UCAV with forward-swept wings looked menacing but has not been seen since at Zhuhai.

At the 2010 airshow, numerous videos, murals and other artistic representations portrayed “heroic” Chinese UCAVs attacking U.S. aircraft carriers. Some of these bizarre renderings showed UCAVs swarming over aircraft carrier battle groups like angry bees.

This year, the one hint that UAVs might be used against aircraft carriers was an imaginative entry in a competition on future UAV designs sponsored by Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC). In this case, a stealthy Blue Shark UCAV was shown attacking Russia’s Kuznetsov aircraft carrier.

Two UCAVs stood out this year at Zhuhai, and both appeared to be influenced by the U.S.-built MQ-9 Reaper. The first was the Wing Loong, built by Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute, and the second was the CH-4, built by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

The Wing Loong received the most attention at Zhuhai due to reports of export deals in the works, but there were few details and it was the only static display of an operational UCAV at the show. With four hard points for weapons, armaments on display were the BA-7 semi-active, laser-guided, air-to-ground missile; LS-6/50-kilogram miniature guided bomb; and the YZ-102A precision-guided bomb and YZ-121 laser-guided bomb.

The CH-4 on display was a full-scale model. Also outfitted with four hard points, the only weapons discernible on display were the AR-1 short-range, laser-guided air-to-ground bomb, and the FT-5 precision-guided “small diameter bomb” outfitted with a semi-active laser seeker for terminal guidance.

The AR-1 was first spotted at the 2008 airshow outfitted on the smaller CH-3 UCAV, but nothing more is known about it beyond its similarities to the AGM-114 Hellfire.

A CH-4 representative said the aircraft is a multirole platform capable of carrying two bombs and two laser-guided bombs. With a 30-hour endurance time and a range of 3,500 kilometers, the CH-4 can reach altitudes of eight kilometers.

Chinese companies showed off more than their ability to produce attack UAVs, with AVIC displaying a sophisticated ground control system (GCS) cabin for UAVs. The GCS cabin featured five flat-screen televisions that provide the operator front vision, a computer-aided view called vision synthetic, head-up displays, flight plan and flight posture.

In a previous report, AVIC’s Avant-Courier, Platypus and Bateleur models were described as UAVs, but airshow sources said that all are conceptual manned aircraft.

The Avant-Courier has a coaxial main gear with side and rear propellers. The single-engine platform provides high-speed, low-speed and hover modes, giving it a multimission profile. The Platypus is a twin-engine high-speed helicopter with a top-side rotating dish wing and lower fixed wings equipped with jet engines. The Bateleur is similar in appearance to the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey. All three are capable of vertical takeoff and landing.

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