China’s first unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), the Lijian or Sharp Sword, made its first flight on November 21. The event took place at an unidentified flight-test site in southwest China after several months of ground testing. The first flight lasted approximately 20 minutes, and unofficial video footage was soon available on Chinese websites.
Chinese media hailed the event as no less significant than the first flight of China’s next-generation J-20 jet fighter more than two years ago.
The UCAV was jointly developed by Hongdu Aviation Industry and Shenyang Aircraft under the state-owned China Aviation Industry (Avic). Its dimensions have not been officially released, although it has been reported to have a wingspan of 14 meters (46 feet). The Lijian is known to have a payload of 2,000 kg (4,410 pounds) and to be powered by the Russian-made RD93 (earlier reports suggested that the Shenyang WP7 engine was fitted). It has a range of 4,000 km (2,160 nm) and a combat radius of 1,200 km (648 nm).
China’s UCAV has followed the American X-45 and X-47, the European Neuron and the British Taranis into the air. All are flying demonstrators of stealthy, tailless flying wings with autonomous flight controls (presuming that the Lijian is so controlled).
A carrier-borne version of the jet is said to be under development, to further extend China’s power projection. But such a version requires precision guidance, which is perhaps still beyond China’s current capabilities.