By Vincent Pisani
The People’s Republic of China over the course of last week hosted an arms expo and airshow in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province. This event displayed and demonstrated several new developments in Chinese military hardware, with some being displayed as available for sale to foreign militaries. This includes weapon systems such as the CM-401 hypersonic anti-ship missile and HD-1 family of supersonic cruise missiles. Advances in drone technology were also displayed, with the CH-7 stealth UAV, HK-5000G UAV, and the Look Out II USV being the main standouts. The latest developments in China’s conventional air and export ground combat systems were also displayed at the event.
The CH-7 UAV is one of the most important developments in Chinese aviation technology revealed during the show. This platform’s supposedly stealthy airframe appears to have significant similarities to Northrop Grumman’s X-47B. Information released by Chinese state media indicates that the UAV has a wingspan of 72.18ft/22m. This makes it slightly larger than the X-47B, which has a wingspan of 62.1ft/18.92m. The air intake and engine housing also appears to be narrower based on the available photographs. Chinese state media also stated that the platform can perform missions such as fire suppression, electronic warfare, reconnaissance, airborne early warning, and other unspecified tasks among which can include combat. Combat will likely be limited to low intensity, single aircraft, strike missions similar to those conducted by the Predator UAV family. The CH-7 would represent a major advancement for the PLAAF if it reaches full production with the capabilities they described. In the South China Sea alone it would allow for China to monitor neighbors military activity undisturbed. The same could also be said about Taiwan, who has seen increasingly hostile rhetoric from China over the last few months. It is important to note that this UAV is still in the development stage, meaning capabilities and performance are very likely to change over time.
Look Out II USV
The Look Out II Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) would represent a major advancement in maritime security capabilities for China, should it be adopted for use with the PLAN or Coast Guard. This USV is similar in size to a USCG Defender-Class RB-S. The Look Out II comes equipped with an artificial intelligence supported navigational system, which allows it to function autonomously out at sea. In regard to weapons, the Look Out II comes equipped with a missile launcher capable of carrying four missiles. The vessels weapon systems are not autonomous and require a human operator to give firing commands remotely. Chinese state media also stated that the company is offering USV’s capable of conducting electronic warfare patrol, escort, and reconnaissance missions. It is important to note that this system is similar to the Protector USV built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The Protector is the more versatile of these two platforms with its ability to conduct mine countermeasure missions and field a more diverse armament. However; it should be assumed that Look Out II will gain similar capabilities down the line if it is successful on the export market or adopted by the PLAN.
China displayed two advanced made for export missile systems during this expo. The first of these, the CM-401, is a hypersonic Anti-Ship Missile (ASM) capable of speeds of up to Mach 6. The CM-401 supposedly can use this speed to circumvent a warships hark-kill anti-missile countermeasures. However; it is unclear if the missile can be affected by soft-kill missile countermeasures common on modern warships. The CM-401 can be fired from a land-based launcher or a surface vessel up to a range of 180m/290km. This weapon system is likely going to be the first hypersonic missile available for sale on the export market. However; the number of China’s current export partners willing to purchase and find use for this weapon system is likely limited. Pakistan has the greatest potential of purchasing this weapon system due to the disparity between their naval forces and India’s. There is also the possibility that some unexpected countries will purchase the CM-401 as a status symbol, even if it is an expensive and impractical use of the weapon system.
The second missile system revealed during the expo was the HD-1 cruise missile. The HD-1 can reach supersonic speeds between Mach 2.2 and 3.5 with an effective range of 180m/290km. The missile is designed to hit both ground and sea targets. However; It is unclear how affective this weapon system will be against sea targets. The manufacture appears to be confident in this capability based on Chinese state media reports. The HD-1 can be fired from 8×8 wheel Transport Erector Launchers (TEL), aircraft, and warships. The HD-1 will likely see more sales than the CM-401 due to the fact that it is a cheaper and more versatile weapon system. However; it is still unclear which of China’s current export partners would be willing to pick up this weapon system.
Air Combat Systems
The airshow also saw the return of several familiar pieces of hardware as well. The J-20 made an appearance during an extended flight demonstration which also gave us a view of the aircraft’s internal ordinance bay. It appears to be able to hold up to four AMRAAM sized missiles within the ordinance bay with two Sidewinder sized missiles being able to be stored on external pylons. A new variant of the J-10 was shown with a thrust-vectoring engine was also shown. This airframe was likely purpose built to demonstrate this new technology and likely will not see full production.