Warplanes: Armed Chinese UAVs In Europe


October 21, 2019: Serbia recently ordered nine Chinese Wing Loong 1 UAVs from CAIG, with an option to purchase 15 more. This aircraft is similar in size (1.1 ton) and function to the American Predator. The Wing Loong entered service about 15 years after the Predator and has quickly acquired a lot of export customers because, unlike the United States, China has few restrictions on who it sells to. If they can pay, they can get an armed or unarmed UAV. Wing Loong 1 can carry 200 kg (440 pounds) of weapons and these usually consist of the Chinese version of the Hellfire or a GPS guided bomb weighing about the same (50 kg). Top speed is 280 kilometers an hour, max range is 4,000 kilometers and max endurance is 20 hours. The UAV has the usual day/night vidcam sensors but can also carry a radar. The UAV can transmit data for about 200 kilometers in line-of-sight mode. Max altitude is 5,000m (16,000 feet.) The UAV can fly a preprogrammed recon mission. There is a Wing Loong 2 that has satellite communications and more hardpoints on the wings for missiles and smart bombs.

Serbia becomes the first European nation to buy Chinese UAVs, mainly because Serbia is still on bad terms with its Balkan neighbors, as well as the NATO nations that used diplomacy, force and peacekeepers to halt the 1990s violence in the Balkans. Russia has supported Serbia for over a century and paved the way for China to sell weapons to the Serbian military, which also has a lot of Russian gear.

The Russians don’t have world-class UAVs while China has more than one manufacturer of large military UAVs and for that reason, China is winning the export market for armed UAVs. For example in early 2106 another Chinese firm (CASC) began marketing a new combat UAV in the “Rainbow” series; the CH-5. CASC was a few years behind CAIG in putting these clones of American UAVs into service but has caught up. The CH-5 is similar to the 4.6 ton American MQ-9 Reaper but a bit lighter at 3.2 tons. The CH-5 has a one ton payload and uses the same weapons as the similar but smaller CH-4B. The CH-5 made its first flight in 2015 and entered service in 2017. It has an endurance of over 30 hours and can carry up to 16 missiles and smart bombs. Max altitude is 9,000 meters.

China is also more flexible about where these UAVs are built. In 2018 Pakistan ordered 48 Wing Loong 2 UAVs for over $100 million Most of these UAVs will be assembled in Pakistan. This is the largest export sale for this UAV since it was first offered in 2016. Pakistan has been operating a few smaller Wing Loong 1 UAVs since 2015. These are similar to the American MQ-1 Predator. The competition between Chinese UAV manufacturers means there is a lot faster development of new capabilities.

The Chinese UAVs are much cheaper (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 it 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. The number of customers has since nearly doubled.

The Iraqi experience with the CH-4B convinced many Arab countries that China had developed suitable substitutes for the American armed UAVs and that helped sales quite a lot, including the deal to open a CH-4 assembly and maintenance facility in Saudi Arabia. At least one of the UAE CH-4s was shot down by Iran-backed Shia rebels in Yemen during September 2016 and several more since then. Some were also lost over Iraq during the campaign to drive ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) out of Mosul.

In early 2018 Iraq released a video of its Chinese CH-4B UAVs, which are similar to the American Predator. This confirmed what had long been known, that Iraq had been using several CH-4Bs since 2015. With the release of the video Iraq also revealed that these UAVs have carried out nearly 300 airstrikes but spend most of their airtime carrying out surveillance. The CH-4Bs were armed with a Chinese version of the American Hellfire laser-guided missile during the Mosul campaign.

This was not the first appearance of the CH-4 in the region. The UAE had already bought some. The Middle East has been a major export market for these UAVs and since 2015 Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both been using Chinese UAVs in Yemen combat operations. The most popular of these is the CH-4, which is similar to the American Predator. Pakistan has also been using CH-4s in combat. These Chinese UAVs sell well because many nations have been unable to buy similar American UAVs. The Americans feared that UAV secrets would be sold to enemies of the United States or that the UAVs would be used to carry out war crimes. China saw this as an opportunity.

The CH-4B is an armed version of the original CH-4 that weighs 1.3 tons and has a payload of 350 kg (770 pounds) compared to 115 kg (255 pounds) in the CH-4. All versions can be operated by a local controller and can operate up to 250 kilometers from the operator. In 2016 China announced two major upgrades to the CH-4 that were much awaited by users. This included the optional ability to be controlled via satellite and the ability to fire laser-guided missiles via the satellite link. CH-4 also received 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 the 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, autofocusing 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 and CH-4B are similar in shape to the 1.2 ton American Predator, have a 14 meter (46 feet) wingspan, and are 9 meters (28 feet) long. They have a max altitude of 5,300 meters (16,400 feet) and an endurance of over 35 hours (if a minimal payload is carried). Max payload (sensors and weapons) for the C-4B is 350 kg, which enables it to carry four weapons (or electronic devices) under the wings, each weighing up to 100 kg. This reduces endurance but as a practical matter, most UAVs of this size rarely stay out for more than 20 hours.

In early 2018 Iraq revealed that China initially provided operators and ground crews with the CH-4s and these enabled Iraqi operators and ground crews to literally learn on the job. This included using Chinese made laser-guided missiles. Chief among these is 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. Having CH-4s in Iraq enabled the CH-4 to get its first combat experience and by 2016 Iraqi operators were using armed CH-4Bs to attack ground targets in support of Iraqi troops. This capability was used frequently during the battle for Mosul which involved a lot of action as Iraqi forces closed in on the city in mid-2016 and moved into Mosul itself in late 2016. That battle went on into mid-2017. While the American supported Kurdish forces advanced from the north using American MQ-9 Reapers the Iraqi forces for support from those as well as the CH-4Bs. This gave American forces a chance to see the CH-4B in action and they confirmed that the CH-4B was comparable in performance to the U.S. Predator, which was being phased out and replaced by the larger (4.7 ton) Reapers.




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