China’s Wuzhen-8 drone again appeared at the Changchun air show, sparking debates among observers on the mysterious Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’s (UAV) purpose.
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So far, the analysis claims it to be a high-altitude, hypersonic, reconnaissance, and targeting drone. Other reports have quoted Chinese scientists saying they could be used to conduct suicide attacks on US F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
The drone made its first official appearance during China’s National Day Military parade on October 1, 2019, before which it had appeared in hazy satellite photographs.
An article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) report from the same year also identified it with another designation, DR-8, “which would play a key role (in a) conflict with US aircraft carrier strike groups in the South China Sea or the Western Pacific.”
It added that it resembled the D-21 drone made by Lockheed Martin more than four decades ago, explored in a EurAsian Times report.
The report quoted Beijing-based military commentator Zhou Chenming, who said the DR-8 could “travel faster than the DF-21 ballistic missile – whose maximum speed is Mach 3.3 – penetrate enemy air defenses and return intact with intelligence.”
Faster than Mach 3 means it would touch Mach 4, which is near hypersonic speeds. There is practically nothing on the Wuzhen-8/DR-8’s speed and technical capabilities on their official media.
But his subsequent claim was even more shocking, which said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had been using drones – which can reach as far as US bases like Guam – for some time.
The design doesn’t appear full-stealth, based on the absence of radar absorbing metal work, finishing, and special paint, which is easy to identify. However, it certainly has been designed for very low observability.
The Drone Design & Capabilities
The drone is triangular-shaped, almost like a flying wing, with no air intakes and rocket-like bell-shaped exhausts. This means it does not have air-breathing propulsion like a jet engine that needs to suck in atmospheric air to compress, heat, and ignite its mixture with jet fuel.
But whether it has a rocket engine has officially never been clarified but confirmed on other online portals.
Secondly, it has two loops on the top fuselage over its spine, which means it would probably be launched from an aircraft. A photo of an H-6N and its underbelly sporting a mounting/anchoring mechanism has been claimed to speculate its compatibility with the DR-8. The plane is a potential platform to launch it.
If the DR-8 is air-launched, the H-6K and H-6N bombers would be the most likely to carry it since no plane in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) can carry such a heavy and large drone. The H-6 series are dedicated strategic bombers designed to carry various cruise, land attack, and anti-ship missiles.
Thirdly, other photos of the DR-8/Wuzhen-8 don’t show electro-optical equipment on its chin or underbelly, which means it has to be concealed in retractable bays.
The dividing lines of hatches that carry retractable equipment like landing gears, air-to-air refueling probes, or bomb/missile bay doors are usually visible but are absent on the DR-8. Lastly, the drone has robust-looking landing gears, which indicates that it can be made to land too at such speeds, which is a massive technical challenge according to scientists.
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The observation about the landing gears meant for landing the plane at speculated hypersonic speeds appears consistent with another SCMP report from last year, which quoted Chinese scientists as having solved this hurdle.
Fei Dai, a researcher with the PLAAF, published a paper in the journal Tactical Missile Technology on September 1 that claimed to make landing an “unmanned aircraft flying more than five times the speed of sound on a standard runway safer.”
The researchers said instead of enhancing the computing and processing power of onboard flight control systems, the PLAAF with the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics improved the software to predict possible landing scenarios better.
But the same report also quoted Wang Xing, a professor at China’s Air Force Engineering University, as having said at an academic conference in Xi’an in 2020 that hypersonic drones could be used against F-22s and F-35s.
Xing said that while stealth technology is redundant in close combat, once it launches a bomb or a missile, a hypersonic drone deployed by China’s land-based air defense system could catch up with an F-22 in seconds – it could fly home at more than twice the speed of sound after launching an attack. The hypersonic drone could only be the DR-8 since no other Chinese drone seems to be designed or powered for the purpose.
The latest SCMP report about Chinese scientists’ “breakthrough” in achieving “stable” communications in hypersonic flight is the most explicit confirmation that the DR-8/Wuzhen-8 might be one of the beneficiaries of the science.
To solve the perennial hurdle of the communications blackout when space re-entry vehicles or ballistic missiles enter the atmosphere at extreme speeds, the researchers’ paper suggested high-speed communications networks of ground stations, satellites, and ships.
“The cause of the communication blackout is the plasma sheath – a thin layer of extremely hot, electrically charged particles that appear on the vessel’s surface at hypersonic speed.
These particles reflect, absorb and distort radio signals, and turbulence makes it hard to measure and predict what they will do,” SCMP quoted the scientists’ paper filed with the peer-reviewed journal Missiles and Space.
One wonders if the Yuan Wang 5 vessel that raised alarms in India and diplomatic wrangling between New Delhi and Colombo over the ship’s visit was meant for the very purpose.
Another report said that the “liquid rocket power system of the DR-8 can not only be launched multiple times but can also adjust the thrust and consumption.”
This means China has also mastered liquid fuel propulsion technology, where the liquid propellants are unstable and tricky to store and transport but allow the burn rate to be controlled. On the other hand, solid fuel propellants are stable, but their burn rate cannot be modulated.