China: First Stealth Drone

09 Dec, 2013    ·   4212

Angana Guha Roy comments on the implications of the test

The test flight of China’s first stealth drone, Lijan, in November 2013, makes China leap from drones to combat drones. It demonstrates China’s enormous military expenditure towards building a world class level of military power. Lijan’s successful test flight has made China the fourth country, after the US (X-47B), France (Dassault nEUROn) and Britain (Taranis), to have independently developed a UCAV. The stealth drone, Lijan or Sharp Sword can be used for electronic surveillance and air-to-ground strikes. Its potential and technological capability makes it a suitable choice for the navy as it may also function as an unmanned combat platform for its aircraft carrier. It is capable of flying undetected at high altitudes, providing intelligence information supported by high resolution video.  Talking about the technicalities, one most important thing about Lijan is that it is equipped with the Russian made RD-93 turbofan engine. RD-93 is a fighter jet engine used in Pakistan and China’s joint fighter jet project. Using it to equip Lijan would also mean that this latest stealth drone will have an extended flight range. This would mean that China will have a larger reconnaissance capability in the region.

Is China trying to narrow down its airpower disparity with western nations? Or does it have a far bigger objective of strengthening its regional sphere of influence?

Regional Implications
Lijan’s test flight is important in the light of the intensifying island dispute between Beijing and Tokyo in East China Sea. To put it in perspective, UAVs demonstrates a country’s prominence in a  disputed zone. China has converted a number of out-of-date J-6 fighters into UAVs in recent years, to monitor the Southwest Islands in East China Sea. In the backdrop of this development, Japan recently came up with a plan of action to strengthen its defence capabilities in East China Sea and surprisingly increased its military expenditure index against its conventional defence guidelines.

Weeks after this, China came up with the multi-capacity Lijan. It will let the maritime departments of China be updated about developments in the East and South China Seas, thereby helping Beijing take accurate decisions. Some analysts have suggested, as National Post reports, “…the drone might someday be launched from China’s sole aircraft carrier, possibly to fly missions around China’s East China Sea and South China Sea Island claims.”  A day after China test flew Lijan, the Chinese Defence Ministry announced the creation of an ‘air defence identification zone’ (ADIZ),  that overlaps Japan’s own ADIZ covering much of the East China Sea, including the disputed islands. China's Defence Ministry, as reports suggest, said that aircraft entering the zone must obey its rules or face ‘emergency defensive measures’.

Air Power Disparity with the West
Following what China Daily has quoted: "The successful flight shows the nation has again narrowed the air-power disparity between itself and Western nations,’’ many predictions emphasise that the launch of Lijan was a conscious effort to match up to Western air power.  The US has conducted test flying of about five UCAVs since the late 1990s. Europe is not far behind in this respect. Currently it is developing the Neuron and Taranis models. In the meanwhile, Russia is working on a version of the MiG Skat. The reports suggest Beijing has developed different kind of UAVs that matches  almost all the categories deployed by the US that range from tactical drones of partial endurance to larger structures that look remarkably familiar to US Predator or Reaper models. Another point of similarity is that these Chinese drones, like their US counterparts, are equipped with hard points on their wings to carry armaments. The delta wing Lijan has has been compared to US’ Northrop Grumman X-47 series and the European Neuron stealth drones. It has also been referred to as a reverse-engineered copy of Russia’s Mikoyan Skat.

Sun Tzu’s quote looks very relevant to China’s Stealth Drone strategy. He famously said, “Subdue the enemy without any battle”. It implicates China’s policy of invoking threat perception among its neighbours strengthening its military capability from time to time.

Despite drawing so much attention for its modern technology and features, this multi functional stealth drone, developed by two subsidiaries of Aviation Industry Corp of China, has been criticised as ‘a little bit naïve’ by Hong Kong-based military expert Andrei Chang. He thinks the design of the engine that appears to be exposed would reduce its stealth capabilities. It shows China as not having ‘enough experience’ in the field. Commenting on the use of RD-93 turbofan engine, Wang Ya’nan, deputy editor-in-chief at Aerospace Knowledge magazine, said, ‘Using the RD-93 compromises the stealth capability of the Sharp Sword, but the situation will be changed after our domestically developed engine that is specifically designed for drones enters production’. Commenting on the criticism would be difficult at this juncture as it requires taking account more expert opinion.  In the end, whether Lijan would be a game changer is too early to predict.