China has officially unveiled its much-awaited suicide drone by conducting live-firing drills. The Chinese state media called them a counter to the US Switchblade drones that have been successfully employed by Ukraine against Russia.
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Global Times reported that China promoted a brand-new rival drone to the American Switchblade on September 8 by releasing a video showing it in action alongside other cutting-edge unmanned aerial vehicles.
As a completely autonomous weapon, loitering munitions can locate, choose to engage, and hit targets on their own. These drones may conduct kamikaze attacks by waiting passively for their target before exploding on impact when they locate it.
The video, released at a forum on unmanned equipment developed by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation in Beijing, showed live-fire shooting drills by armed reconnaissance drones like the CH-4 and the CH-5. However, the launch footage of the FH-901 suicide drone captured everyone’s attention.
In the video, a tank target could be seen being attacked and destroyed from above by what appears to be an FH-901 suicide drone. According to the state media, the FH-901 drone is China’s version of the Switchblade suicide drone, or loitering munition, developed by the United States.
The FH-901 loiter munition or suicide drone
These weapons are light enough to be deployed at the company level
This is perhaps the most visual demonstration of how industrial prowess decides the outcome of wars.
Make enough of these, no enemy can survive in the open pic.twitter.com/AqXzSZoCNK
— Zhao DaShuai 无条件爱国🇨🇳 (@obsidianstatue1) September 9, 2022
The Switchblade has shot to fame with a spate of triumphs on the battlefield recorded by Ukrainian troops.
In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US first dispatched about 100 of these drones to Kyiv, promising 300 more. The Ukrainian soldiers were reportedly trained to use the system in the United States.
On its part, even Russia ended up developing its version of the Switchblade drone.
EurAsian Times reported last month that Russia claimed to have developed a drone similar to the US-made Switchblade but twice as powerful. According to a fact sheet available with the press, the Russian LAOP-500 drone can hit targets at a range of up to five kilometers and has an endurance of up to 20 minutes.
This indicates that the Chinese are not the only ones to develop and deploy a drone comparable to the American Switchblade loitering munitions that have proved their mettle in combat on multiple occasions and in different topography.
In July, the drone reportedly launched and recorded a deadly attack on the Troebortnoe crossing in Bryansk Oblast, Russia.
“The Switchblade is hard to defend against because it has a smaller radar cross-section than the type of aircraft that a typical air defense system is oriented toward. It’s clear that Russia wasn’t ready for these kamikaze drones, and even now that they are, we can see that they’re hard to stop”, Sarah Kreps, the Director of the Technology Policy Institute at Cornell University, told 19FortyFive.
That being said, while China has conducted its official unveiling now, the F-901 suicide drone has been around for a while and has been an object of interest both locally and globally. In 2016, China unveiled a suicide drone named ‘CH-901’, which is now apparently rebranded as the FH-901 loitering munition.
China’s Switchblade – The FH-901
Earlier, in Jordan, China’s drone called ‘CH-901’ was displayed by SOFEX in 2018. At the time, media reports had revealed that it was a suicide drone intended to combine the capabilities of a drone and a bomb and could hover for 40 minutes before swooping down on a target.
The CH-901, now the FH-901, is a fixed-wing UAV with a high-wing shape and a cylindrical fuselage. Even though the details are unconfirmed, they describe the drone as 1.2 meters long, with a top speed of 150 kilometers an hour, an operating radius of 15 kilometers, and an endurance of 120 minutes.
The suicide drone can be equipped with a fragmentation charge or a shaped charge warhead capable of piercing 10 cm of armor and destroying tanks and light armored vehicles. According to Global Security Organization, it is launched from a container and can be ready for action in less than three minutes.
The Global Times report stated that the FH-901 could be launched from the ground and moving aircraft in the sky, for example, a bigger drone. This could be indicative of a swarm drone concept involving the suicide drone. The swarm drone concept is fast gaining ground and is being pursued even by the United States.
In 2020, China conducted a test involving a swarm of suicide drones, including what resembled the CH-901 drone. The Chinese drone is often described as a cruising swarm drone that can rapidly attack enemy maneuvering targets with spot-on precision.
In the test conducted in 2020, the drones were launched from a box-like array of tubular launchers on a light tactical vehicle and helicopters. At the time, the alleged CH-901 was seen with pop-out wings and a twin-tail arrangement, as noted by The War Zone. It was around this time when comparisons were drawn with the American Switchblade.
🇨🇳 China Aerospace Science & Technology Group Co. Ltd. will present the Feihong series of UAV at the Zhuhai Airshow 2021. It seems they range from traditional-shape ones(FH-95), to MALE ones (FH-97), to loitering munitions (FH-901) & to hybrid tri-rotor ones (FH-909) pic.twitter.com/AI9u38BmcV
— Jesus Roman (@jesusfroman) September 24, 2021
Later in 2021, China presented its Feihong series of UAVs at the Zhuhai Airshow, including the FH-901 loitering munition. The similarities with the Switchblade became an object of discussion among military watchers and experts.
The Switchblade is a kamikaze drone that can loiter over an area for 30 to 40 minutes before being slammed into its target and detonating a small warhead. It has a camera and a warhead that is launched from a tube.
It comes in two variants – the Switchblade 300 and Switchblade 600. The latter is heavier, has an anti-armor payload, and can penetrate tanks better.
The US military used the Switchblade 300 drone in Afghanistan against the Taliban. They referred to the weapon as an “angry bird” or a “buzzing bee,” according to Wahid Nawabi, the Afghan-born CEO of AeroVironment.
The excellent victories recorded by this American loitering munition have caused a domino effect with countries like France, which expressed interest in the Switchblade. The French Army said on June 13 that the service plans to add loitering munition to its inventory within the next six months.
Since 2004, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation’s two drone series, the CH and the FH have been exported to several countries. The approach has accumulated significant application data, the company claimed in a press release provided to the Global Times on September 8.