- - Tuesday, March 26, 2013

China’s military is expanding its unmanned aerial vehicle forces with a new Predator-like armed drone and a new unmanned combat aircraft amid growing tensions with neighbors in Asia, according to United States intelligence officials.

New unarmed drone deployments include the recent stationing of reconnaissance and ocean surveillance drones in Northeast Asia near Japan and the Senkaku islands and along China’s southern coast. Drones also are planned for the South China Sea where China has been encroaching on international waters and bullying nations of that region in asserting control over international waters, said officials familiar with intelligence reports.

“Unmanned aerial vehicles are emerging as critical enablers for PLA long range precision strike operations,” said Mark Stokes, a former military intelligence official now with the Project 2049 Institute. “A general operational PLA requirement appears to be persistent surveillance of fixed and moving targets out to 3,000 kilometers of Chinese shores.”

Japan, meanwhile, is developing and purchasing military drone capabilities to counter what it regards as Chinese aggression and Beijing’s growing military capabilities as Tokyo’s dispute with China over the Senkaku islands intensifies, the officials said.

After Chinese aircraft intruded into Japanese airspace over the Senkakus undetected late last year, Tokyo stepped up efforts to seek drone capabilities. The efforts include building an indigenous missile-tracking drone and high-altitude U.S. drones.

So far, unlike Beijing, Tokyo asserts its drone will be unarmed, the officials said.

China has started deploying UAVs for reconnaissance and oceanic surveillance purposes in the vicinity of disputed maritime territories, such as the Senkaku Islands,” said one military source.

Of particular concern to U.S. intelligence agencies are two new missile-equipped drones known as the CH-4 and Yi Long. The aircraft were shown off along with six other military drones at a major Chinese arms show last November in Zhuhai.

Photos of the drones reveal the designs appear to be copied from the U.S. Predator armed drone that has been leading the Obama administration’s war on al Qaeda in Pakistan and elsewhere. Photos of the CH-4 show it armed with Blue Arrow-7 anti-tank missiles that appear similar in size to the U.S. Hellfire fired from Predators.

Even more of a concern, according to the officials, are intelligence reports from Asia indicating that China is well along in building a large stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV)—an upiloted jet—that was revealed recently in an online Chinese military video.

The drone combat jet is nearly identical in shape to the experimental batwing-shaped U.S. Air Force X-47B currently under development. The X-47B was tested on an aircraft carrier in December.

The Chinese UCAV is expected to have enough range to reach the U.S. island of Guam, some 1,800 miles from the Chinese coast and the hub of the Pentagon’s shift to Asia, officials said.

Video and photos of the Chinese UCAV were posted on Chinese military enthusiast Internet sites recently. Also, a model of the drone combat jet was on display at Zhuhai. The aircraft is being built by the China Shenyang Aerospace Institute and could be deployed on China’s new aircraft carrier, officials said.

Richard Fisher, a China military analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the first prototype flying wing UCAV was completed at China’s Hongdu Aircraft Corp in mid-December. The drone weighs 10 to 14 tons and could be carrier based.

“This means that the U.S. attempt to ‘outrange’ an emergent PLA anti-access systems, like the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, could soon be outflanked by a new PLA carrier-based UCAV,” Fisher said.

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