For years UAVs from the United States and Israel have dominated the larger end of the unmanned market, but now a number of new players have begun to emerge. While they have yet to threaten the dominance of the “big two,” newcomers from other countries are increasingly chipping away at the marketplace and threatening to take sales away from the established suppliers.
For many nations the development of a UAV is an obvious step to drive forward technological expertise, but at much reduced cost compared to a manned program. For the most part such projects have resulted in small UAVs that require little in the way of development investment, and which can be undertaken by universities. However, the large UAV market is another matter, requiring extensive investment and expertise in the development of sophisticated systems.
In recent years a number of nations have instigated large UAV programs as technology matures and political ambition grows. In terms of both system complexity and the number of types being developed, China is by far and away the most important of these emerging UAV developers. In just a few years China has developed and flown a range of UAVs that are broadly similar in capability to their Western counterparts, including high-altitude, long-endurance ISR platforms and a technology demonstrator for a UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle).
When it made its first flight in November 2013 the Lijian (“sharp sword”) UCAV demonstrator underlined just how far the Chinese had progressed in their unmanned technology. The stealthy UAV is being developed by the 601st Design Institute (Shenyang), Shenyang University and Hongdu. Preceded by scale models, the Lijian first flew with a standard afterburning RD-93 engine that protruded aft of the main body. Further developments are most likely to feature a shorter engine so that rear-aspect signature is much reduced.
Little detail is known of the Lijian, or indeed many of the Chinese UAV projects. The rumored existence of a stealthy flying-wing design, perhaps similar to the U.S. RQ-180, has been reported. One project that has resulted in hardware is a requirement for a high-altitude UAV in the mold of the Global Hawk. Chengdu built a prototype of a V-tailed UAV with slender wings and a prominent nose bulge, but it appears this design has been superseded by the Xiang Long (soaring dragon). Designed by the 601st Institute (Chengdu) and built by Guizhou, the Xiang Long has an unusual box-wing design. A technology demonstrator was followed by a prototype of a revised design, first seen in 2012.
A bewildering array of more prosaic UAVs has been developed in China, although only a handful have reached operational status. The Predator-like Chengdu/Guizhou Wing Loong (pterosaur) appears to be in Chinese service, and was publicly displayed at the Zhuhai Airshow. Guizhou has developed a jet-powered twin-boom vehicle known as the WZ-2000, although its status is unclear. Another type in service, probably with the navy, is the Harbin/BUAA BZK-005, a large twin-boom vehicle with under-nose sensor turret. One of these air vehicles was recently intercepted by Japanese fighters over the East China Sea.
For a country that embraced unmanned reconnaissance aircraft in the 1970s in the form of the Tupolev Tu-141/143/243 series, Russia has surprisingly lagged behind the West in unmanned vehicle development and has turned to Israeli and other suppliers to satisfy its needs. However, at least two projects are under way for sophisticated indigenous designs.
One is for a stealthy UCAV, based on the MiG Skat demonstrator that was unveiled in 2007. The current project involves both Sukhoi and MiG and will draw on the technology developed for the earlier MiG design. Meanwhile, the Sokol plant in Kazan is completing the prototype of the Altius, a large twin-turboprop high-altitude vehicle that could also undertake weapons delivery.
As part of a government initiative Turkey has invested heavily in its aerospace industry, and one of the results is the Anka UAV project. Developed to answer a Turkish armed forces requirement for a tactical UAV, the Anka first flew in December 2010. It has a high degree of indigenous equipment, including sensors from Aselsan. The Anka-A vehicle is the foundation for what could be a major UAV family, with a hunter-killer derivative being developed and a larger strategic UAV under study.
India is another country that has been investing heavily in its aerospace sector, and has consequently initiated a number of unmanned air vehicle programs, including the Rustom family of ISR and armed ISR vehicles, and the Aura technology demonstrator project for the stealthy IUSAV UCAV. The Rustom series began with an unmanned vehicle based on the Rutan Long-EZ light aircraft that could be armed. Rustom-2 is a twin-engined, T-tailed MALE vehicle that will be capable of releasing weapons, as well as carrying out its primary ISR role.
Pakistan has developed a range of UAVs, as well as employing those from other countries, such as the Italian Falco. Global Industrial Defence Solutions produces a range of air vehicles for Pakistan’s armed forces, the largest of which is the Shahpar. This exhibits a Rutan-inspired canard layout, and may be based on the similar Chinese CH-3 UAV that has also been acquired by Pakistan. GIDS claims that all of the aircraft and its systems are of Pakistani origin, apart from the Rotax 912 engine (produced by Bombardier Recreational Products of Canada).
Denel’s Seeker tactical UAV was first developed to answer a South African ISR need during the 1980s. It entered service in 1986 and saw considerable operational action before being retired. However, Denel continued development for the export market, and has sold Seeker IIs to at least three countries, including the UAE. Subsequently a further improved vehicle, the Seeker 400, has been introduced and is being offered for export, including armed options. Denel also developed a larger UAV, the Bateleur, but that project appears to have been shelved while the company focused on Seeker 400 development.
In the Gulf region Adcom Systems from the UAE has created a large HALE-type UAV in the form of the Yabhon United 40. This unusual design has slender fore and aft wings, and can carry a variety of weaponry, including Adcom’s own Namrod missile. The serpentine fuselage provides ample space for sensor carriage, and an internal bay that could carry sonobuoys in the maritime patrol role. Among the countries interested in the vehicle is Russia.
Little is known about Iranian UAV developments, although a number of designs have been seen. Of note at the larger end of the scale is the Shahed 129, which appears to be very similar to the Elbit Hermes 450.