China has ramped up its military infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang regions bordering India. New satellite images show that Xinjiang’s Malan airbase is hosting a secretive unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fuelling speculation that it could be a “hypersonic” drone.
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China has made rapid strides in drone technology with the Chinese company DJI manufacturing almost 80 percent of the UAVs currently used in the US and Canada.
In 2018, there were reports that the Chengdu Aircraft Research & Design Institute (CADI), also called 611 Research and Design Institute, was working on a high-speed reconnaissance UAV.
Recent satellite images accessed by The War Zone show the presence of numerous drones, including Wing Loong and Sharp Sword, in front of UAV hangars at the Malan airbase in Xinjiang province.
On a closer look, a black triangular-shaped drone can be seen parked at the site. The UAV was first spotted in 2018, a fact that was highlighted by a French portal. The EurAsian Times has compared the two images, both showing the same drone.
A 2019 report by The Drive had also talked about the growing drone fleet of the Chinese PLA. The images from the Malan Airbase in Xinjiang showed the Wing Loong series among other drones.
Wing Loong II & Sharp Sword
The Wing Loong drones have been developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute (CADI), a division of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), especially for surveillance and aerial reconnaissance missions.
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According to reports, the Wing Loong II is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV. It is 9.05m long with a height of 2.77 m and a 14m wingspan. The expected take-off weight of the drone is 1,100 kg and it is capable of carrying an additional weight of 200 kg on its external bay.
Pakistan has also reportedly acquired the Wing Loong II drones.
Another drone that is believed to be present at Malan airbase is Sharp Sword UCAV. Designated as the GJ-11, the Sharp Sword stealth combat drone was unveiled to mark the 70th anniversary of China’s founding in 2019.
According to The Drive, the Sharp Sword is expected to carry two 2,000-pound class munitions in internal bays and can conduct long-range operations beyond China using its satellite data-link.
The Chinese Navy has reportedly expressed interest in acquiring the Sharp Sword for its aircraft carriers to conduct unarmed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
Earlier reports suggested that China had tested an AI algorithm in its J-16.
Introduced in 2014, the Shenyang J-16 is a multi-role fighter. The EurAsian Times had mentioned that the J-16 is equipped with a modern multi-mode AESA radar and is capable of conducting both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.
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Powered by an indigenously built WS-10 Taihang turbofan engine, the J-16 has composite air-frames, Missile Warning System (MAWS), and Radar Warning Receiver (RWR).
It is widely known that China is working on enhancing its stealth-drones capability. In 2019, China unveiled its Sky Hawk stealth drone, reported The National Interest.
The Sky Hawk is reportedly a long-range and high-altitude unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. The Sky Hawk has been designed by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation and the Chinese company compares the stealth characteristics of the drone with that of the MQ-25.
According to Ma Hongzhong, the chief designer at the Chinese company, the Sky Hawk is a high-altitude, high-speed, stealth, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft that can perform tasks in high-risk environments. It was also said that the Sky Hawk can be paired with manned aircraft effectively, and can also function as a strike UAV.
Ma Hongzhong said although the Sky Hawk was developed for tactical infiltration, it can also be modified to perform specific tasks according to the requirements of a combat mission.
The latest satellite images accessed by TheDrive show a black triangular UAV. Interestingly, in 2018, a French news portal, East Pendulum, also mentioned this drone citing a satellite image, saying this could be a hypersonic drone.
The unmanned aircraft was around 12.1 meters long and had a wingspan of 5.6 meters, the French portal had claimed.
“The physical appearance of this mysterious drone, therefore, suggests that it is rather designed for high flight speed. Analysis of the image also suggests that it is powered, probably with an RBCC (rocket-based combined cycle propulsion) or TBCC (Turbine-based combined cycle propulsion) type engine,” Henri Kenhmann wrote for East Pendulum.
“Obviously, we have to wait for other institutional elements to confirm the link between this drone that appeared in the satellite images at the beginning of June (2018) and the said project of the 611 Chengdu Institute, but it is practically certain that whatever the true nature of the machine, the fact that it is in the airbase of Unit 95835, which is responsible for training and transforming pilots and drone operators for the Chinese Air Force, means that the project has at least has reached a certain technical maturity and has already entered active service, or is in the process of being so,” Kenhmann added.
WZ-8 High-Speed Drone
In October 2019, China had officially unveiled the WZ-8 high-speed reconnaissance drone, also called DR-8, at the National Day parade. The WZ-8 is an air-launched, high-speed, high-altitude, drone. It looks like a hypersonic glide vehicle.
Shaped like a dagger with small wings, the reconnaissance drone may be able to fly at a high-supersonic speed and have stealth capabilities, military analysts told China’s state-owned Global Times.
The drone can either be launched from a bomber or transport aircraft.
The biggest advantage of WZ-8 is that it can effectively gather intelligence in real-time in a controllable way compared to other platforms like satellites, Wu Jian, editor of Defense Weekly under Shanghai-based Xinmin Evening News, had said.
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“The drone will also act as a soft deterrence, giving the message that the Chinese military can engage in reconnaissance on its targets, so can it launch strikes on them,” Wu added.
Commenting on WZ-8, Tyler Rogoway, Editor-in-Chief of The War Zone, wrote in 2019, “We also don’t know their exact fuel type, but being rocket-powered, this craft could have the potential to climb to extreme altitudes, potentially nearing the edge of space.
It could then use the speed and altitude it has acquired to continue on a quasi-ballistic trajectory before turning toward its recovery location once in thicker air and eventually gliding in for a landing.”
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