In early May 2017 China publicized the existence of a jet powered three tons UAV that could travel at 750 kilometers an hour at low altitude (under six meters/18 feet) over water and carry a torpedo or missile weighing up to a ton. Endurance was said to be about 90 minutes but that was apparently not seen as a problem as this UAV was mainly intended for coastal defense. This particular this UAV was not a surprise to people in the business (of intel or building UAVs) because it was publicly revealed in 2016. Back then it was not a surprise because China has been building jet powered UAVs for over a decade. The new one was publicized as stealthy and a major threat to American warships. That may be true, but depends on a lot of other factors (mostly of the electronic variety, for both offense and defense).
UAVs of this type date back to jet powered cruise missiles first widely used in the 1950s. By the 1970s these had evolved into reusable target drones. The most widely used of these was the American MQM-107, which entered service in the late 1970s. Some 2,200 MQM-107s were produced until production ceased in 2003. This UAV was reliable, sturdy and used for target practice or towing the designated target. The MQM-107 could be recovered because it was equipped with a parachute and built to survive multiple landings. MQM-107 weighed 664 kg (1,470 pounds) had a max speed of 925 kilometers an hour and max endurance of 130 minutes. There were similar drones from other companies but the BQM-167 was what really replaced the MQM-107 in 2006. This is a one ton, single engine aircraft that is 6.1 meters (20 feet) long, with a 3.4 meter (11 foot) wingspan. Max speed is about 1,000 kilometers an hour, and the carbon fiber composite airframe can handle 9 g turns. Launched via a rocket from a rail, the UAV lands via parachute. Max altitude is 16 kilometers (50,000 feet) and minimum is 16 meters (50 feet). The BQM-167 can stay aloft three hours per sortie. Equipped with GPS, the ground based operator maneuvers the BQM-167 to provide realistic targets for air force or navy missile carrying aircraft, or U.S. Army Patriot anti-aircraft missiles. Most of the time, the weapons operators just use the UAV to ensure that they can track and precisely locate an aerial target. But sometimes, the missiles themselves are tested, and the UAV is fired on. In some of these situations, the UAV is equipped with countermeasures (like chaff or flares or electronic jammers) and will also maneuver as a manned aircraft would. Because of this the price of a BQM-167 can vary from about a million dollars to two million or more. The tech used for the MQM-107 and BQM-167 were known to the Chinese and it was already known that the Chinese were developing similar aircraft.
Back in 2008 China revealed that it was developing a jet powered UAV, similar to the U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk, called Xianglong (Soaring Dragon). The Chinese UAV is about half the size of the Global Hawk, at 7.5 tons, with a 14.5 meter (45 foot) wingspan and a .65 ton payload. Max altitude will be 18.4 kilometers (57,000 feet) and range will be 7,000 kilometers. It has a faster cruising speed (750 kilometers an hour) than the RQ-4. Back in 2008 the new Chinese jet powered UAVs were seen serving as high speed recon aircraft for naval forces. Once these UAVs spot an American carrier it was believed high speed cruise missiles, fired from a ship or manned aircraft, would have a target location to home in on. By 2016 the Xianglong was in production and the technology for it could easily be adapted to produce the new one carrying a one ton payload.
Chinese firms have already been successful in building and selling clones of the American Predator and Reaper. The Chinese CH-4 entered service in 2011 as part of the “Rainbow” series of UAVs. The first models were missing some key capabilities of the Predator. By 2016 the CH-4 was updated so it could be controlled via satellite. This included firing laser guided missiles. CH-4 also has a new sensor system. Improvements in this “electro-optical (EO) payload” are many. The day vidcam now produces 1080p video feeds. The night sensor is FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared sensor), a technology that has been around since the 1980s, and as the heat (infrared) sensing technology became more powerful, it was possible to spot and identify targets at longer ranges. This was accomplished through the development of more sensitive heat sensors, and more powerful computer hardware and software for putting the images together. The new FLIR for CH-4 can identify targets up to 20 kilometers away and enable automatic tracking of distant (up to 18 kilometers) targets. This is made possible by a lot of other improvements like better servo control, inertial guidance inside the EO system, auto focusing and computer controlled image enhancement and identification. This makes possible a much more accurate targeting system for the laser guided missiles the CH-4 carries.
The CH-4 is similar in shape to the 1.2 ton American Predator, weighs 1.3 tons, has a 14 meter (46 feet) wingspan, and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. It has max altitude of 5,300 meters (16,400 feet) and an endurance of over 35 hours. Max payload (sensors and weapons) is 345 kg (759 pounds). A CH-4 can carry 4 weapons (or electronic devices) under the wings, each weighing up to 100 kg.
China offers Chinese made weapons for their larger UAVs. Chief among these are a Hellfire clone, the AR-1. This is a 45 kg (99 pound) missile with a max range of 10 kilometers and a 10 kg (22 pound) warhead. AR-1 can be equipped with either GPS or laser guidance. The other weapon is a copy of the American SDB (small diameter bomb) which is a 128 kg (281 pound) GPS guided glide bomb in the shape of a missile with a penetrating warhead. The Chinese version is the FT-5 and is a 100 kg (220 pound) GPS guided bomb in the shape of a missile.
In early 2106 China began marketing a new combat UAV in the “Rainbow” series; the CH-5. This one is similar to the 4.6 ton American MQ-9 Reaper but a bit lighter at three tons. The CH-5 has a 900 kg payload and can carry smart (GPS guided) bombs as well as laser guided missiles (similar to the American Hellfire. CH-5 made its first flight in 2015, apparently has endurance of up to twenty hours and is supposed to be available for delivery in 2017.
The Chinese UAVs are much cheaper (sometimes about half the price) than the American originals, but for that you get aircraft and missiles that have not had as many of the bugs worked out nor achieved anything like the nearly two decade track record of the Predator. The CH-4 was developed from the earlier (2010) CH-3. This is a 640 kg aircraft with 12 hours endurance and can carry two AR-1 missiles. Thus it is believed that the CH-5 is a scaled up version of the CH-4.
In 2016 China revealed that is had sold military UAVs to ten countries, mainly in the Middle East and Africa. Most of the military UAVs delivered so far have been CH-3s and 200 smaller unarmed UAVs equipped for surveillance and reconnaissance. At the same time China has become the largest exporter of commercial UAVs which are used by police and commercial firms for a wide variety of tasks.