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Chinese UAVs fly near Japan as new models abound

1st September 2021 - 12:05 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Christchurch

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A rear view of the TB001 UAV from Tengden, of the type spotted by the Japanese military over the East China Sea. (Gordon Arthur)

New and innovative UAV designs continue to flood out of Chinese companies and institutes, while the PLA is getting bolder about flying them farther afield too.

The Joint Staff Office of the Japanese MoD has publicised the fact that a Chinese TB001 MALE UAV flew near Japanese territory on 24 August, prompting Japanese fighters to scramble.

This twin-tailed Scorpion UAV, as it is sometimes known, is not believed to be in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) service yet, so its presence over the East China Sea far from the Chinese coast was intriguing. It flew towards Okinawa and Miyako Island in the Ryuku Islands chain, before turning for home.

Whether the TW328/TB001 was undergoing evaluations —  by its manufacturer Tengden Technology Company, by the PLA Air Force, PLA Navy (PLAN) or by a private company such as SF Express — is unknown at this point. Certainly, the absence of any company logo suggested it was not being used by the latter.

The aircraft had a serial number that appeared to be two letters followed by four digits, though it is difficult to accurately read it given the low resolution of the picture released by the MoD. Such a code does not fit known patterns used by the PLA.

Tengden is a mysterious company that sprang from nowhere in January 2016. Within just months, its TB001 platform achieved its maiden flight on 26 September 2017.

Saudi Arabia signed an agreement with Tengden to licence-produce the TB001 as the Al Eqab-1, and an example was exhibited at IDEX 2021. The twin-boom airframe is powered by a forward-mounted turbocharged piston engine, with a three-bladed propeller at the front of each boom.

TB001 has a retractable undercarriage. It is 10m long and 3.3m high, with a maximum altitude of 8,000m. Tengden also makes the smaller TA001 which carries a 300kg payload.

NameTB001TA001
First flight20 March 2019 (armed version)4 February 2018
MTOW2.8t1.2t
Wingspan20m14.7m
Max range6,000 km (with SATCOM data link)3,800km
Endurance35h24h

On the same day as the Japan Air Self-Defense Force intercepted the TB001, another flight of Chinese military aircraft comprising a BZK-005 UAV and two Y-9 special mission aircraft (one was a maritime patrol and the other a SIGINT platform) approached Japan. These overflew the Miyako Strait between Okinawa and Miyako Island, flying into the Western Pacific.

According to the photo released by the Japanese MoD, the BZK-005 has been upgraded for wide-area ISR, as indicated by a chin-mounted synthetic aperture radar radome and a mid-mounted ventral EO/IR turret.

China continues to innovate in terms of UAVs. For example, researchers at Xidian University in Xian are developing a quadrotor UAV that can transition between water and air. Its most obvious application is military use, such as being launched from submerged submarines to conduct above-surface ISR missions.

This is not the first trans-medium UAV – ST Engineering showed its Unmanned Hybrid Vehicle at the 2016 Singapore Air Show, for example – but the Chinese one uses high-speed rotor blades for underwater travel, rotating at 3,600rpm. The prototype can only carry a 500g payload.

A Wing Loong-series UAV in flight dropped a munition-shaped canister that carries supplies. (Photo: CCTV)

The Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG) recently signed a deal with the Sichuan provincial government in May to develop a UAV industrial park in Zigong. The centre will research, design, develop, test, assemble, produce, and sustain commercial and military UAVs.

CAIG and Sichuan will jointly invest some CNY10 billion ($1.57 billion) in the CAIG-Zigong UAV Industrial Base to be operational by 2023. The parties stated that 100 large UAVs would be built there annually. CAIG builds the Wing Loong family.

Speaking of the Wing Loong, the PLA was apparently trialling it for a logistics role in late 2020. A weapon-shaped canister filled with supplies was mounted on an under-wing hardpoint, which fell to the ground via parachute.

It is thought that AVIC conducted the demonstration on behalf of the PLA to show how urgent supplies can be rapidly dropped to ground troops. The PLA in the Tibet Military District was also experimenting with VTOL UAVs last year on supplying troops.

Indeed, last November, Chinese state-run TV reported that the Tibet Military District was ordering VTOL UAVs for border surveillance and high-altitude operations. Two types believed to be wanted are Ziyan's strike-capable Blowfish A2 and the Ranger P2-X reconnaissance platform.

Members of CASC presented a scale model of the CH-6 on 16 March. (Photo: China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics)

Apart from CAIG, the other most prominent Chinese military UAV manufacturer is the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), and its latest product on the drawing board is the CH-6 MALE/HALE platform.

On 19 April, CASC’s China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (the 11th Academy) posted a photo on its official WeChat account that included a scale model of a CH-6.

Although the view was only partial, the model had a wider-than-typical fuselage compared to previous CH-family UAVs. The fuselage has a chined front body under which is mounted an EO/IR sensor. The thick wings, ending in split winglets, feature four hardpoints for munitions. The design also adopts a T-tail.

These characteristics reflect design innovation from CASC. Probably powered by a rear-mounted turbofan, the CH-6 is likely to be marketed as a low-cost HALE platform.

Another manufacturer called Zhongtian Feilong (also known as ZT Guide Control) announced that it had conducted a successful technical verification flight of a new UAV that deploys multiple smaller UAVs on 20 March.

The ‘swarm mothership’ is a hybrid UAV with twin tail booms. The smaller UAVs (possibly up to four) are released from a belly dispenser, and they could be loitering munitions, mini-UAVs or ISR or EW payloads, for example.

A model of the stealthy FL-2 was shown at China Airshow 2018 in Zhuhai. (Photo: Gordon Arthur)

Zhongtian Feilon also claims to have a stealthy UAV that can rival the future USAF B-21 Raider bomber. Known as the FL-2, the company said in April that the prototype had recently been completed. Its designer said the multirole high-subsonic UAV (a listed top speed of 900km/h according to information displayed at the Zhuhai Air Show in 2018) could be used for ‘precision strikes on key assets such as enemy command centres, military airstrips and aircraft carriers’.

With a 6t internal payload and a 22t MTOW, it could be flown as part of a swarm for ISR, saturation attacks or damage assessment. Its operational range is listed as 7,000km with a flight ceiling of 15km and 10h+ endurance.

Highlighting the credentials of its blended-wing FL-2, Zhongtian Feilon boldly said: ‘This means the American B-21 has already fallen behind, even before it enters service.’

The AR-500B UAV making its maiden flight. (China Helicopter Design and Research Institute)

The AR-500B, which could eventually become a shipborne or carrier-based UAV for the PLAN, completed a 30-minute maiden flight at Poyang on 27 November 2020. Its developer, the China Helicopter Design and Research Institute, used a heavy fuel engine.

The UAV has an MTOW of 500kg and mission endurance of 4h, with an operating radius of 100km carrying a 70kg payload. Its cruising speed is 120km/h and its ceiling 4km.

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