Chinese Navy Employs UAV Assets

April 2012
By James C. Bussert, SIGNAL Magazine


A photograph taken by a Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force P-3 maritime patrol aircraft shows a small Chinese unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flying over a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ship during naval exercises near Japanese islands last summer. The open display of a PLAN UAV far from China’s land bases clearly shows China’s embrace of unmanned technology for blue-water operations.

The Middle Kingdom learns from the example—and the hardware—of other nations.

China’s navy has begun using unmanned aerial vehicles as part of its blue-water operations. At least one type has been photographed by foreign reconnaissance aircraft, and other variants have been reported. Not only has China been displaying an assortment of models at air shows, it also is incorporating advanced U.S. unmanned vehicle technology into current and future systems.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) since it built copies of U.S. Air Force Firebee drones that were shot down during the 1960s. These were the prototype WuZhen-5 (WZ-5), also referred to as Chang Hong (CH-1) UAVs, in 1972. Chinese UAVs initially were designed by the China Airborne Missile Academy with the PLA as the prime customer for decades. The PLA reportedly used UAVs during the 1979 invasion of Vietnam, and it gained valuable reconnaissance information that aided combat operations.

Currently, dozens of Chinese enterprises are designing UAVs, most of which never will be procured. This is similar to the UAV design situation in U.S. and other Western companies and laboratories. Some of these Chinese UAVs appear to be remote-control models similar to those for sale to children in hobby stores. One photograph of a Chinese army UAV model used by troops even seemed to show a “cockpit” on the plane. On November 29, 2011, Xinhua News reported that Liaoning was the first province to use remote-controlled drones rented from a mapping company for marine surveillance of its 150,000 square kilometers of sea space. This complements the PLA Navy (PLAN) coastal surveillance mission.

UAVs were not observed or reported operating as part of the PLAN fleet until July 2011. Two or three separate operations took place from the northern East China Sea to the South China Sea during June and July 2011, possibly demonstrating interfleet coordination in the exposure of these new naval UAVs.

On June 14-15, 2011, the PLAN scheduled a 14-ship firing exercise in the South China Sea—similar to the exercise held in June 2010, making this a recurring annual major exercise. These may be part of a complex effort aimed at intimidating other nations that also have South China Sea claims. Some news reports indicated that naval UAVs were part of the exercise, but no details of the UAV operations or photographs of them have appeared. Because firing exercises took place, it is possible that the UAVs served target identification and gunnery observer roles as well as provided possible communication support. The types of UAVs are unknown, but two later exercises included photographs of specific naval UAVs used there.

Also in June, a large PLAN 11-ship exercise took place near Japanese islands in the eastern Philippine Sea. The Chinese force consisted of three Sovremenny guided missile destroyers, one modern Jiangkai II frigate, one Jiangwei I and one Jiangwei II frigate, a Fuqing-class auxiliary oiler, a Tazhong-class fleet tug and a Dongdiao intelligence vessel. A Dajiang submarine rescue vessel was included, which hints of probable submarine participation, although none was observed. The ships passed Myakojima heading east on June 9, where they conducted gunnery exercises, shipboard helicopter and underway replenishment operations approximately 450 kilometers west of Okinotorishima. After operating in the East China Sea for a week, the flotilla appeared to be heading home, passing between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Myokojima. On June 24, a Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force P-3 maritime patrol aircraft was investigating the force’s movements. Unexpectedly, a small UAV was observed flying above a Jiangwei II frigate and was photographed by the Japanese P-3 crew.

The small short-range UAV seems to be about 15 feet long, smaller than the 20-foot length of the U.S. Navy MQ-8 Fire Scout UAV. Also, the Chinese UAV is not a vertical takeoff helicopter like the Fire Scout. The Fire Scout has a 110-nautical-mile operating radius, a 6-hour flight time and a top speed of 125 knots. The unidentified Chinese UAV has a streamlined body, which is lacking on the ASN-206 UAVs. Also, an electro-optic or camera ball for identifying targets is suspended underneath the nose of the PLAN UAV.

Reports differ on the takeoff and recovery. One report describes rocket takeoff and recovery from the water, but this description fits the ASN-206 UAV, and its twin-boom design with square tail fins and pusher-propeller lower body is nothing like the UAV in the photograph. More likely, the PLAN fleet UAV took off and landed on the flight deck of one of the frigates. With its small size, several of the UAVs could be stored in the ship’s helicopter hangar.

Although the Japanese P-3 crew is to be congratulated for its first photograph of a PLAN UAV at sea, it is certain that the PLAN flotilla radars tracked the P-3 from a great distance and purposely had the UAV in flight when the aircraft arrived. It was no accident—the Chinese seem to have obviously planned for their new technology to be photographed for propaganda purposes.

On July 10, naval drones were used in support of a three-day military amphibious exercise between Hainan and the Spratley Islands. The PLAN force of 14 warships included patrol vessels, amphibious landing craft, replenishment ships and antisubmarine vessels as well as two naval aircraft and a new enhancement of multiple UAVs for naval communication links. The UAVs completed 10 mission goals, “including air information relay, mass information delivery and special situation handling,” according to a China military Web page.

A July 2011 Taipei news report stated that this naval UAV, which it named Silver Hawk, was an ASN-209 designation, and its first test flight was in Binhai in northeast China. The ASN-209s, with their 7.5-meter wingspan and 140-kilometers-per-hour cruising speed, were launched with a rocket booster and upon completion of their missions were suspended under a parachute for landing retrieval. The ASN-206/209 has a range of 150 kilometers, a loiter time of 4 to 8 hours and a 6,000-meter ceiling. The standard ASN UAV engine is designated HS-700. It is a 51-horsepower, air-cooled, four-valve engine driving a two-blade propeller. With its twin tails and pusher-propeller engine, it resembles the U.S. Navy 1986-vintage RQ-2 Pioneer UAV.

Although it is possible to launch an ASN-209 from a warship helicopter deck, a Chinese military photograph shows it being launched from a shore-based communication station at a South Sea Fleet training range. The photograph shows it has four large vertical antennas on the body and wing, each three feet long. These long antenna blades are unbelievably archaic today for communication links, and they are not shown in the ASN advertisements. Another photograph shows a computer console manned by sailors, with dual displays and desks with keyboard and joystick enabling multitasking and real-time control of the ASN-209. Its mission was to serve as a communication link between an amphibious force and supporting surface ships.

While the location and units were not identified, the Guangzhou Military Region has had prior amphibious exercises in 2002 and 2003 that involved an electronic countermeasures regiment that included a UAV battalion. A naval/marine training base is located at Dongguan in southern Hainan. The exercise area spanned from southern Hainan, the obvious UAV launch point, to the Spratly Islands, which almost certainly is the amphibious landing area.

There is a possibility that the two reports of South China Sea UAV exercises are of the same event, but the different dates and type of operations make it unlikely. The other northern UAV operation in Japanese waters is unknown, but it certainly is a new naval Chinese UAV design.

In addition to the veteran WZ-5 and ASN-206 copies of Firebee and Pioneer, copying U.S. UAVs is a familiar Chinese trend. The ASN Technology Group Company, located in Xi’an, is the country’s largest UAV research and production company, and more than 90 percent of Chinese military UAVs are ASN products. Other popular U.S. UAVs copied are the Predator and Global Hawk.

The Predator copy is named Pterodactyl I (or Pterosaur), and its propulsion is a 100-horsepower piston engine. The Global Hawk copy is named Xlanglong or Soaring Dragon (also BZK-005). It weighs 16,500 pounds and has a cruising altitude of 57,000 feet. The Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) designed Soaring Dragon, and its UAV prototype dates from 2006. A Zhuhai air show video shows a stealth body with twin tilted fins to reduce radar cross section. Observed in 2009 at an operational hangar with its support van, it has an optical turret under its nose and a 75-foot wingspan along with a 4,000-mile range. One of the Soaring Dragon UAVs reportedly crashed in Hebei province in August 2011.

The U.S. Navy Global Hawk has a 14,000-mile range and has been modified to a more capable MQ-4C Broad Area Maritime Surveillance design by Northrop Grumman. A jet-propelled, armed UAV by China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation named the WJ-600 was shown in a video at the 2010 Zhuhai air show. The video portrayed it flying over a U.S. carrier battle group, and then sinking a ship and shooting down a fighter with its onboard missiles—nothing subtle about the purpose or the enemy in that scenario. The Soaring Dragon possibly could become a naval reconnaissance UAV, but it still is deployed as a PLA system.

A newer stealthy supersonic joined-wing-and-tail design UAV called Dark Sword is under development by the CAC. It is similar to the U.S. Avenger. Shenyang University has two competing stealth prototype designs named Crossbow and Wind Blade, which have longer wings with winglet tips. These have not been designated as naval UAVs, but their capabilities match anti-carrier naval reconnaissance and targeting missions.

Zhuhai air shows have featured more than two dozen new UAV models, but they are not in production for China and are marketed for foreign sales. The 2000 Zhuhai air show revealed evolutionary UAV design progress, such as a Guizhou WZ-200 small jet-powered UAV evolving into a medium-size UAV. By Zhuhai 2008, it became an armed, turbofan model analogous to the U.S. company General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper. The largest Chinese UAV at the 2010 Zhuhai air show was the ASN-229A. It has a radius of 2,000 kilometers and carries air-to-ground missiles and a satellite target datalink.

Although Zhuhai air shows have many videos and prototypes, only a few UAV types are in service, and their technology is estimated to be 20 years behind that of the countries in the West. Key deficiencies include their lack of miniaturization of antennas, video and communication systems and links.

Chinese advanced UAV development certainly will benefit from Iran downing a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel UAV on December 4, 2011. The RQ-170 represented the latest U.S. stealth technology application to UAV state of the art. It is almost certain that Iran will provide details to China on this latest technology.

Future PLAN UAVs will be much larger and more capable, and a copy of the stealth RQ-170 could aid anti-carrier ballistic missile strategic operations to track targeted carrier battle groups. But that capability is not likely in the near future.

James C. Bussert is employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Virginia, where he works on surface ship antisubmarine fire control systems. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. Navy.

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