Singapore Air Show

China Is Serious About Exporting UCAVs

 - February 3, 2018, 12:05 AM
The Wing Loong II made its first flight one year ago and its international debut at the Paris Air Show four months later. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

How times have changed—and how quickly! At the Singapore Airshow two years ago, the Chinese aerospace export promotion group CATIC (Static S09, Stand CS42) showed a small-scale model of an armed, turboprop-powered UAV. It looked similar to the American GA-ASI MQ-9 Reaper. But when AIN reported on it in real time, the model was quietly removed from display.

Since then, however, the Wing Loong II (Pterodactyl II) has made a well-publicized first flight (in February last year), followed by its international debut at the Paris Air Show in June, surrounded by an array of weaponry. Five months later, at the Dubai Airshow, the Chinese marketing for export of this and other armed UAVs went into overdrive.

In the static park at Dubai, both the Wing Loong II and its predecessor, the piston-powered Wing Loong I, were on display. Next to them was a full-scale model of yet another armed Chinese UAV: the jet-powered Yun Ying (Cloud Shadow). Inside the exhibition hall, a simulated ground station and unusually informative Powerpoint display proved that the Chinese are serious about exporting not just airframes but also fully capable and versatile unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), with comprehensive and versatile communications, mission planning, targeting, exploitation, and dissemination capabilities.

Already, about a dozen countries have bought armed Chinese UAVs. Many of them have been denied Western alternatives because the U.S. and European countries adhere to the provisions of the Missile Control Technology Regime (MCTR). This voluntary code was designed curb the proliferation of missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons. China signed up to the MCTR, but not to its subsequent extension in 1992 to cover long-range UAVs.

Cloud Shadow on ramp
The jet-powered Cloud Shadow has been flying since May 2016, but was shown as a full-scale model only when making its international debut at the Dubai Airshow last November. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

The Wing Loong I and II and the Cloud Shadow are products of Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG). But the first Chinese UAVs to be exported came from another producer: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). It has built the Cai Hong (Rainbow) series of UAVs, including the small, canard-configuration, piston-powered CH-3, followed by the turboprop-powered CH-4, which is similar in size and configuration to the Wing Loong II. The larger CH-5 first flew in August 2015 and made its public debut at China’s own Zhuhai airshow in November 2016. It shares the same control system and datalink as the CH-3 and CH-4.

jet-powered CH-5 on ramp
The jet-powered CH-5 was unveiled at the Zhuhai Airshow in November 2016. (Photo: Reuben Johnson)

But although all of these Cai Hong designs are being marketed for export, none of them has yet been put on public display outside China.

Non-aligned third-world countries such as Egypt, Myanmar, and Nigeria have introduced the CH-3 and/or CH-4. But supposedly western-leaning countries in the Middle East—Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—are all now operating CH-4s. And in all these countries, the Cai Hong UAVs have been used in combat against domestic or foreign adversaries.  

Last March, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology signed a partnership with CASC to establish a manufacturing plant in Saudi Arabia for the Cai Hong series of UCAVs. At about the same time, the Saudis became the first acknowledged customer for the Wing Loong II. Media in Saudi Arabia reported that the Kingdom will acquire 300 Wing Loong IIs worth approximately $10 billion. Those are large numbers and difficult to interpret. But what is clear is that a Chinese UAS costs much less to acquire than a western counterpart such as the Reaper or Watchkeeper, or even an Israeli UAS such as the Heron or H-450.

What is not yet in the public domain is operational feedback from those countries that have bought the Chinese drones. This could be because of Chinese-imposed secrecy caps, but it could also be because those countries are unwilling to admit that they have failed to climb the steep learning curve involved in introducing unmanned aircraft, and/or unwilling to admit that they have bought poorly performing systems.

Whatever the truth, the promotional data released by the Chinese on their latest UAS is certainly impressive. The Wing Loong II can fly for 20 hours at a speed of nearly 400 km/h (215 knots) and a height of up to 9,000 meters (30,000 feet). It carries a small synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that includes ground moving target indicator (GMTI); an EO/IR/laser targeting turret; and up to 480 kg (1,050 pounds) of precision-guided weapons on six wing hardpoints that accept dual launchers. It takes off and lands automatically; employs both satellite and inertial navigation; and has a triple-redundant central processing unit (CPU). The maximum takeoff weight (mtow) is 4,200 kg (9,250 pounds).

The ground stations are offered in fixed, vehicle-mounted, and portable configurations. They employ a service-oriented open architecture and use cloud-computing to support flexible networking that includes the ability to control up to three UAVs; handover control of the UAVs remotely; switching between autonomous and manual control; do real-time mission planning; auto-target recognition by the SAR/GMTI; and auto-prompting of weapons-launch guidance windows for the turret. The Chinese have even stressed how seriously they have taken the comfort of the operators, with the “reliable ergonomic design” of the workstations and seats.

The datalinks include Ka-, Ku-, and S-band satcom options, plus C-band and UHF for line-of-sight connections and backups. They employ frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum techniques for security and can handle software-defined radios.      

The same ground and datalink architecture supports the Cloud Shadow UAV. Contrary to some previous western assumptions, this jet made its first flight as long ago as May 16, 2016. It can fly for six hours at a speed of around 600 km/h (325 knots) and a height of about 13,000 meters (42,500 feet). It has a dual-redundant FCS, a triple-redundant CPU, and dual-redundant Fadec controlling the WP11C turbojet. The mtow is 3,200 kg (7,040 pounds).

The Cloud Shadow is being marketed in three versions: the CS-1 for long-range and wide-area imagery reconnaissance using a SAR and a long-range oblique photography camera; the CS-2 for long-range high-altitude "covert" reconnaissance equipped with COMINT and ELINT sensors covering 0.1 to 2 GHz and 0.8 to 18 GHz respectively; and the CS-3 for precision air-surface strike, from a range of 60 km when employing GPS-guided weapons against previously known target locations, or from 20 km when engaging moving targets with bombs or missiles that are guided from its EO/IR/laser turret. The CS-3 has a total of four underwing weapons stations and is being offered with eight different precision weapons.