China steps up drone race with stealth aircraft

Visitors taking pictures of a stealth UAV model at Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai this week. The show highlights China's growing production of sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles.
Visitors taking pictures of a stealth UAV model at Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai this week. The show highlights China's growing production of sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Combat UAVs show Chinese makers' intent to compete with US military's production

ZHUHAI (Guangdong) • China is unleashing stealth drones and pilotless aircraft fitted with AK-47 rifles onto world markets, racing to catch up to US technology and adding to a fleet that has already seen combat action in the Middle East.

Combat drones were among the jet fighters, missiles and other military hardware shown off this week at Airshow China, the country's biggest aerospace industry exhibition.

A delta-winged stealth drone got much attention, highlighting China's growing production of sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) seeking to compete with the US military's massive fleet.

The CH-7 - a charcoal-grey UAV at the air show - is the length of a tennis court with a 22m wingspan. It can fly at more than 800kmh and at an altitude of 13,000m.

"We are convinced that with this product clients will quickly contact us," said Mr Shi Wen, chief engineer of the Caihong (Rainbow) series drones at state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC).

The CH-7's maiden flight is slated for late next year.

CASC has clients in around 10 countries, Mr Shi said, while declining to name them. "Some things remain sensitive," he said.

 
 

China's drones are now flying in the Middle East, as Beijing has fewer qualms than the United States when it comes to selling its military UAVs to other nations.

The Iraqi army has used CASC's CH-4 drone to conduct at least 260 strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group, Chinese media reported earlier this year.

In Yemen, where a civil war has sparked what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis, the United Arab Emirates military is said to have targeted a Shi'ite rebel chief with a Chinese-made drone.

"The Chinese have produced an enormous range of drones, and this seems to be an area they expect to make great progress," said Mr Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

"The export and deployment of them should enable them to improve on design as they get tested in a real combat environment," Mr Tsang said.

The US has plenty of lethal drones, but it has had restrictions on exporting them out of concern that the technology could be copied or used against its own troops.

Some of those restrictions were lifted in April for US allies, with President Donald Trump's administration citing competition from Chinese "knockoffs", but even a solid ally such as Jordan has not been able to buy US drones.

WIDE VISION

The Chinese have produced an enormous range of drones, and this seems to be an area that they expect to make great progress.

MR STEVE TSANG, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

The US rules gave Beijing the opportunity to fill the void and sell its drones to other countries, but China's "competitive" prices also helped, said Mr James Char, an expert on the Chinese military at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

China has exported its armed UAVs to countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Mr Char said.

At the Zhuhai air show, Chinese drone makers are rubbing their hands in anticipation over the business opportunities.

"Security is a real problem in the Middle East. There's a real need for military drones over there," said Ms Wu Xiaozhen, overseas project director at a company named Ziyan.

At the company's stand, Ms Wu handed out a brochure showing its star product: the Blowfish A2, a 62cm-tall helicopter drone with Kevlar armour.

"We can add an AK-47 or a machine gun. Different weapons can be installed, whatever the customer wants," she said.

Abu Dhabi is already a customer while Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are in discussions with the company to acquire the drone.

"We are targeting Western markets, too. Our product is of great quality," Ms Wu said. "We don't fear competition from the Europeans and the Americans."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2018, with the headline 'China steps up drone race with stealth aircraft'. Print Edition | Subscribe