At the November 2006 air show in Zhuhai the Shenyang Aircraft Design and Research Institute unveiled an interesting UCAV concept called Anjian or Dark Sword. The impressive looking model raised eyebrows when it was declared to be for the air-to-air role. A2A is considered to be decades away for UCAVs so it is likely the model is just to show off current thinking in Chinese design and aerodynamics. Given the secrecy that usually surrounds new aviation projects it is unlikely that the real next generation UCAVs are too much like Anjian but it certainly shows that they have come some way like the rest of their aerospace industry.
China is putting a lot of effort into indigenous UAV development with UAVs being seen as key to the development of tactical C4I and airborne ISR. One problem the army is having is integrating data from UAVs into their operations, it is only recently that Chinese UAVs have been able to relay information back in real-time.
Air force reconnaissance
The first operational reconnaissance UAV with the Chinese air force was the WZ-5 which was based on the Ryan Firebee and entered service in 1981. It is thought the WZ-5 was reverse engineered from captured Firebees downed during missions over Vietnam and China in the 1960s but using Chinese designed surveillance and support equipment. The WZ-5 has been used operationally but has a number of drawbacks such as the lack of real-time datalinking and control. It can only fly a pre-programmed flight profile and has to be retrieved in order to get the imagery taken. Recent WZ-5s are said to be able to carry TV and infrared cameras but still lack real-time datalinks.
A much more advanced UAV is the GAIC WZ-2000 (or WZ-9) which was unveiled for the first time in 2000. The WZ-2000 has a similar configuration to the US RQ-4 Global Hawk. The WZ-2000 has a thermal imaging camera and synthetic aperture radar to give it a full all-weather capability (the WZ-5 was only usable in daylight) and sends data back to base in real time via satellite. The WZ-2000 first flew in the early 2000s.
A number of UAVs have been developed by Xi'an ASN Technology Group and are in PLA service. The ASN-104/5 was the first indigenously designed UAV for army service and entered service with the PLA in the late 1980s. Piston engined, it can carry a variety of sensors and could be controlled from the base station or fly along a pre-planned route. The ASN-105B can relay information back in real-time.
The ASN-15 is a battlefield surveillance and intelligence UAV that is in service with the reconnaissance battalions of Chinese army divisions. The 1.8m long UAV is hand-launched by a soldier and can fly for up top an hour returning imagery back to the base station in real time.
The ASN-206 is one of China's most advanced UAVs and as well as surveillance and reconnaissance can also be used for electronic warfare and radiation sampling. The ASN-206 employs a twin-boom pusher propeller design and has a real-time datalink back to it's operators. It was one of the first Chinese UAVs to offer real-time datalinks as earlier UAVs in PLA service like the ASN-104 needed to be recovered to get the data back. The ASN-206 was developed in the mid-1990s, reportedly with the assistance of the Israeli company Tadiran Spectralink.
A major type of drone used by the PLAAF is the ChangKong-1, a reverse-engineered copy of the Soviet era Lavochkin La-17C. The CK-1 is a subsonic radio controlled target powered by a turbojet. The CK-1 entered service in the 1970s and has also been used for atmosphere sampling after nuclear tests. Later versions of the CK-1 were optimised for low-level and high-agility to enable a variety of training scenarios.
Xi'an ASN Technology Group have also produced a number of propeller driven target drones such as the ASN-7, a simple propeller and straight winged radio controlled aeroplane. Some of these are China's earliest UAVs being developed from the late 1960s onwards.
A more recent development has been the TianJian-1 which is intended to simulate cruise missiles. The TJ-1 entered service in 2005 and can be guided by remote control or by GPS.
The next generation?
Chinese UAV development started off reverse-engineering or copying US and Soviet types and along the way there has been some help from Israel but now China has a thriving UAV industry. Many new types of UAVs now in development in China from a number of companies. Beijing Black Buzzard Aviation Technology unveiled a couple of new types to be powered by micro-turbines. The 3.2m long rail-launched HFT-60A is said to be capable of 600km/h with an endurance of 3 hours on a pre-programmed flight, the similar HFT-40A is slower. It is intriguing that the company have gone for high-speed yet low-endurance UAV which is the opposite of most other manufacturers!
The company also demonstrated another UAV that is able to take off from unprepared strips (and presumably land again) and has a joined wing and pusher propeller configuration.
Joined wing UAV