Stealth drone completes successful maiden flight

Unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, which may help monitor disputed territory, latest example of country's fast improving military technology

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 4:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 10:24am

China yesterday staged the successful maiden test of its first jet-powered stealth drone, making the fourth country to implement the technology after the Britain, France and the United States.

Military experts said the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) would help China to strengthen its intelligence gathering capability in the East and South China seas, where Beijing has been engaged in several tense territorial disputes with its Asian neighbours.

In-flight photos of the new drone, which has been dubbed the "Lijian" ("Sharp Sword" in Chinese), and video footage were posted on Chinese military forums and picked up by the website of the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the People's Daily.

Video: China's first stealth drone Lijian, or "sharp sword", appears on the internet

The Global Times cited online reports as saying that the drone - powered by a single jet engine and sporting the same "flying-wing" design as the US X-78B drone prototype - is the product of collaboration between the mainland aerospace firms Shenyang Aviation and Hongdu Aviation Industry.

The reports said the Lijian's maiden flight yesterday afternoon lasted about 20 minutes. It is the country's third home-grown stealth aircraft in three years, and follows the advanced J-20 and J-31 stealth fighter jets.

The J-20 had its maiden flight on January 11, 2011, when former president Hu Jintao was meeting then-US defence secretary Robert Gates in Beijing. The smaller, twin-engine J-31 completed its first flight on October 31 last year.

The Lijian is designed for use by the PLA Air Force and Navy Air Force for combat, tracking and reconnaissance, said Xu Guangyu , a former PLA major general who is now a senior researcher at the Beijing-based China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.

"The successful maiden flight of the Lijian is a symbol of how China's military modernisation is catching up with advanced countries," Xu said.

"The drone, which is capable of flying undetected at high altitudes while providing high-resolution video and other intelligence, will let maritime departments keep abreast of developments in the East and South China seas and will help Beijing make accurate decisions when dealing with territorial disputes with its neighbours."

US media have reported that the Central Intelligence Agency has used UCAVs to monitor suspected terrorists, such as al-Qaeda members hiding in Pakistan.

However, Li Wei , an anti-terrorism expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said the Lijian would not play a significant role in China's domestic anti-terrorism efforts.

"China's anti-terrorism activities take place at home, so conventional methods of surveillance are sufficient," he said. "The cost of deploying a UCAV is too high and not necessary.

"But the achievement of stealth UCAV will certainly help China integrate into the world's current wave of advanced military technology."

The stealth UCAV project was launched in 2009. Mainland military websites said it had finished ground-taxiing tests in May.