A pair of grainy photos shot at long distance could be the best evidence yet of Beijing’s first jet-powered and presumably armed drone warplane.
The images, one of which was cropped and enhanced by Internet users and has been reproduced here, first appeared to the wider English-speaking world on Thursday afternoon on the Secretprojects.co.uk web forum.
The pics follow close behind the equally ambiguous photo debuts of China’s two stealth fighter prototypes (in 2010 and 2012) and its homegrown heavy transport plane (this year). A far blurrier and even more ambiguous photo possibly depicting the new drone appeared on a Russian Website in March.
“What’s Chinese for, ‘Here we go again?’” Aviation Week reporter Bill Sweetman quipped upon seeing the purported killer drone images.
Consensus among China watchers is that the vehicle depicted in the photos is the Lijian, or “Sharp Sword,” Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, a collaboration between Chinese aerospace firms Shenyang and Hongdu. Powered by a single jet engine and resting on tricycle landing gear, the Sharp Sword UCAV seems to sport the flying-wing shape shared by several U.S.-made killer drones prototypes.
The flying wing platform, also used by the U.S. B-2 stealth bomber, is ideal for radar-evading designs.
Beyond its basic shape and possible radar-evading qualities, not much is known about the apparent new drone. But that doesn’t mean the robot’s appearance is unexpected. China has already unveiled a rudimentary prop-driven armed drone.
And the latest edition of the Pentagon’s annual report (PDF) on Chinese military capabilities, released earlier this week, predicted a more sophisticated Chinese UCAV would soon make an appearance. “The acquisition and development of longer-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles … and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, will increase China’s ability to conduct long-range reconnaissance and strike operations,” the report stated.
It’s worth noting that China is the last major aerospace power to debut a jet-powered, low-radar-signature killer drone prototype. The U.S. has led the pack, test-flying no fewer than five UCAVs since the late 1990s and even bringing one unarmed variant, the RQ-170, into front-line service. Europe has the Neuron and Taranis models in development and Russia is working on a version of the MiG Skat.
As drone developers all over the world have discovered, airframes are often the easiest part of the system to create. What’s hard are the software, data-links, control systems and payloads that transform what are in essence large model airplanes into effective robotic weapons. And it’s with these key subsystems that China will likely have the most trouble.
The Pentagon China report specifically lists “solid-state electronics and micro processors [and] guidance and control systems” as technologies Beijing finds it easier to buy or steal from the U.S., Europe and Russia than to develop on its own. U.S. experts worried that China might gain access to some American drone technology via an RQ-170 that crashed in Iran in 2011.
So far the Sharp Sword has apparently only been spotted taxiing along a runway on ground tests. It’s not clear when its developers might attempt a first flight. Even less clear is whether, and how soon, the Chinese killer drone might enter front-line use.