US DoD annual report highlights China's growing UAV strike capabilities
Kelvin Wong, Singapore - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly13 May 2015
CASC's CH-4 is equipped with an electro-optical sensor turret, a synthetic aperture radar system, and four hardpoints capable of mounting a variety of precision-guided munitions. Source: IHS/Kelvin Wong
The US Department of Defense believes that China will acquire nearly 42,000 unmanned aerial vehicles by 2023, with some of these systems expected to be strike-capable
This assessment is supported by the presence of a range of advanced UAV platforms, sensors, and weapons at 2014 Airshow China in Zhuhai
China could manufacture up to 41,800 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), worth approximately USD10.5 billion, for land and sea-based operations by 2023, according to estimates cited by the US Department of Defense (DoD) in its 2015 annual report to Congress on Chinese military developments on 8 May.
AVIC displayed its Yilong I/Wing Loong I UAV with an updated range of weapons and sensors at Airshow China 2014, including CASC's new TL-2 air-to-ground missile and a synthetic aperture radar. (IHS/Kelvin Wong)
The DoD also believes that the development and acquisition of longer-range UAVs will increase China's ability to conduct long-range reconnaissance and strike operations, noting that four UAVs in development include the Xianglong (Soaring Dragon), Yilong (Pterodactyl), Sky Saber, and Lijian (Sharp Sword) in 2013.
The report also stated that apart from the Xianglong, these platforms are also capable delivering precision weapons. However, this is essentially a reiteration of the observations made in its 2014 report and has since been overtaken by developments on the ground.
For example, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China's (AVIC's) Yilong medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAV - also known as the Wing Loong - had been showcased by the company in its production-ready form with further details of its performance profile, sensors, and weapons payload at the 2014 Airshow China exhibition in Zhuhai. Alongside AVIC's 'export' Yilong UAV were sensor and weapons payloads that have ostensibly been successfully integrated to the air vehicle.
The PLAAF has acquired the Yilong I UAV and has designated it the Gongji-1, or Attack-1. (IHS/Kelvin Wong)
These include the Loong Eye (Dragon's Eye) LE380 model electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) turret, which is developed by its Luoyang Optoelectro Technology Development Center (LOEC) subsidiary. AVIC officials declined to disclose the specific variant of the Yilong's LE380 system, although the baseline model is equipped with an IR thermal imager and a colour charge-coupled device (CCD) camera. A laser rangefinder and designator is available as an option, which would likely be employed on the strike-capable variants of the vehicle.
The company has also developed a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) system called the DH-3010, which officials said will enable the Yilong to discern and track targets even under unfavourable surveillance conditions - such as thick cloud cover, fog, and smoke - that would degrade the performance of typical EO/IR systems.
The company had in earlier events showcased the Yilong with the China North Industries Corporation's (Norinco's) Hongjian-10 (HJ-10) air-to-surface anti-armour missiles as well as LOEC's 50 kg LS-6-50 small-diameter bomb. At the 2014 airshow, however, AVIC showcased a wider range of weaponry associated with the UAV, including a three-missile launch pylon carrying the new 16 kg Tianlei-2 (TL-2) air-to-surface missile developed by Aerospace Long-March International Trade (ALIT).
More importantly, the report has failed to acknowledge the Yilong's entry into People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) service, debuting at the airshow in PLAAF colours. In service vehicles have been designated the Gongji-1 (Attack-1), further indicating its employment as a strike-capable platform. PLAAF officials declined to reveal the number of Gongji I UAVs in its inventory, nor its service entry and deployment details.
The report also noted the advancement of indigenous UAV-delivered precision weapons, which is also growing in tandem with the growth in air vehicle utility.
"China is developing smaller-sized ASMs (air to surface missiles), such as the AR-1, HJ-10 anti-tank, Blue Arrow 7 laser-guided, and KD-2 missiles in conjunction with its increasing development of UAVs," the DoD stated, noting that GPS-guided munitions such as the FT-5 and LS-6, which are comparable with the US Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), are being adapted for UAV applications.
Likewise, the breadth and scope of Chinese UAV weapons development extends far beyond what had been detailed in the report.
For example, the Beijing-based China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) unveiled at least four new indigenously developed precision-guided weapons in 2014, including the new Tian Lei (Sky Thunder) range of lightweight and compact guided ASMs specifically designed for employment aboard UAVs and light rotary aircraft, and UAV-specific models within its Fei Teng ('To Fly') guided bomb range.
The Tian Lei product line currently comprises the Tian Lei-1 (TL-1) and Tian Lei-2 (TL-2) missile systems.
According to CASC, the 85 kg TL-1 missile - which has been depicted in company literature as being launched from an Anjian (Dark Sword)-type unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) concept - is equipped with a set of foldable, high aspect-ratio cruciform wings and a solid-propellant dual-pulse rocket motor that enables it to defeat lightly protected land and naval targets up to 20 km away.
The laser-guided 16 kg TL-2 short-range missile is tailored for smaller UAVs as well as for larger platforms where payload capacity is constrained by other mission critical equipment. The TL-2 can be equipped with either a 4 kg blast fragmentation or fuel air explosive (FAE) warhead designed for use against small land and naval platforms as well as personnel.
A CASC spokesperson told IHS Jane's in November 2014 that both missiles have already been fully developed and are in production, revealing that the TL-2 has also been selected as the standard air-launched weapon for a new strike-capable variant of the Xian ASN-209 multirole tactical UAV platform, the ASN-209G.
CASC has also developed new additions to its low-cost Fei Teng (FT) family of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) specifically designed for UAV delivery.
The FT-9 is a 50 kg-class PGM that is available for both UAV and manned aircraft applications, with both models featuring a blast fragmentation warhead. In addition to its standard INS/satellite-guidance system, the FT-9 can also be equipped with an additional TV/IR camera or semi-active laser seeker to enable terminal course corrections. According to CASC, the FT-9 is capable of defeating fixed or stationary targets up to 5 km away from the launch vehicle with a CEP of 3 m when the optional terminal guidance kit installed, or 15 m when launched using its on-board guidance system.
Another new addition to the Fei Teng range is the 25 kg-class FT-10, which features a steerable propulsion system comprising a solid rocket booster and actuating tail fins. CASC claims that the rocket-assisted flight capability enables the PGM to engage even slowly moving targets up to a maximum range of 8 km. The FT-10 can be also be fitted with a TV/IR or semi-active laser guidance system for enhanced accuracy.
CASC's CH-4 (Cai Hong-4 or Rainbow-4) MALE UAV was also not mentioned by the DoD report. Already in PLAAF service, an undisclosed variant of the CH-4 demonstrated its strike capabilities during the multilateral 'Peace Mission' exercise in Inner Mongolia in August 2014. An export variant of its CH-4 was similarly exhibited at Airshow China 2014 with a wide array of weapons.
CASC has also developed the TL-1 and TL-2 laser-guided air-to-surface missiles for light aircraft and UAV deployment. (IHS/Kelvin Wong)
Source: IHS Jane's 360