Wednesday, November 28, 2012
China Unveils New Killer Drones, Aims Them at Russia
That’s all from a glimpse of the biennial China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, held earlier his month in Zhuhai, which has become the main event for the latest in all things Chinese aircraft. It’s China’s largest aircraft expo, while also presenting an opportunity for Beijing to show off its growing robotic muscle — and potential buyers in the developing world. But until recently, the drones on display were usually mock-ups or drawings, not the real thing.
This year, Beijing’s most prominent new drone is the dinosaur-named Wing Loong, or Pterodactyl, according to a round-up at Defense News. The drone is reportedly operational — China has previously shown only models of the drone — and closely resembles the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper, which the Pentagon uses to bomb insurgent hideouts in Pakistan. Few foreign journalists were reportedly allowed to see it, but photos and videos that appeared online prompted ace aviation journalist David Cenciotti to remark that the Wing Loong appeared “largely copied from the U.S. version.”
But a lot cheaper. The Wing Loong reportedly comes at a rather incredible bargain price of $1 million, compared to the Reaper’s varying price tags in the $30 million range. Now, a word of caution to potential buyers: What you’re getting for that price might not be very capable. But aside from price, the Wing Loong can also reportedly fly for about 20 hours, up to a range of 2,500 miles. It also packs four “hard points” for mounting a variety of laser- and precision-guided bombs. Also pictured on Chinese television was the Wing Loong’s ground control room, similar to the ones used by U.S. drones, but with only three-screen-equipped workstations compared to the Reaper’s five.
Another drone spotted with a clear resemblance to the Reaper is the CH-4. This drone was only a scale model, but reportedly has largely similar features to the Wing Loong. Its reported maximum range is shorter: a little over 2,000 miles, but has 10 hours more endurance time. Chinese companies also showed off a number of small mini-drones, and concept photos of a number of futuristic concepts, including a robotic shark, missile-spewing drone helicopters and unmanned bombers. The tech also included plenty of non-robotic items. There was a new anti-missile missile called the FD-2000. There was a Chinese copy of the U.S. military’s line of bomb-resistant MRAP trucks, a wearable computer system for ground troops, aircraft radars and a whole mess of various machine guns, anti-aircraft cannons and bombs.
There was also a curious shift in how China was promoting its drones at Zhuhai. In recent years, a selling point for convention goers involved drones presented as U.S. warship killers. Exaggerated, yes, but a glimpse inside Chinese military thinking. In 2010, Chinese defense industries not-so-subtly advertised “bizarre renderings” that illustrated drones “swarming over aircraft carrier battle groups like angry bees,” Defense News reported. China Aerospace and Science Corporation (CASC) also displayed a mural of its WJ-600 drone firing a missile at a U.S. Arleigh Burke class destroyer.
This year, that was out. Illustrations of U.S. warships were likewise replaced by generic, stateless ships. And Russian ships. In one video seen this month, a sleek computer-animated combat drone called the Blue Shark flexed its muscles in an attack on a digitized Russian Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier.
Perhaps images of bombing the U.S. Navy was a little too politically sensitive, in a kind of reverse backtrack like what plagued the atrocious Red Dawn remake. But the boosterism about blasting American ships to the bottom has also receded as Beijing has grown more confident in showing off its working drones. In recent years, the drones on display at Zhuhai largely — and once exclusively — came in the form of models or concept art. While interesting, the mock-ups presented an optimistic picture about China’s future drone fleet like the aforementioned illustrations of drones swooping down on American warships. And as sensational as that might look, it’s a long way from a battle-ready drone fleet. But neither are operational drones sitting on the tarmac, for that matter.
But they may not necessarily need to be, if they’re for export. “We’ve been contacting many countries, especially from Africa and Asia,” Guo Qian, a director for CASC, told GlobalPost. “They are quite interested in the intermediate and short-range UAVs because they are portable and low-cost.”
Which makes sense. If you’re the leader of a small or mid-sized Latin American, African or Asian country, a relatively cheap Chinese drone (that packs a punch) might not be a bad deal — think bargain shopping for flying death robots — compared to the more pricey American or Israeli drones, which happen to lead the world market. That means even if China’s drones won’t match the U.S. anytime soon, it may still spread them far and wide. And then what happens when the drones do match the Pentagon’s ‘bots, or come close? Who knows. Though we’ll probably see it first at Zhuhai.