Chinese state television has highlighted a new armed spy drone, with one report saying it will be able to work with other unmanned aircraft to carry out reconnaissance and strike operations.
The WJ-700 – which completed its first flight in January – is seen as a key part of the Chinese military’s ambitious “unmanned combat system”, though analysts say technical challenges remain.
Its use as an unmanned war drone – operating either on its own or as part of an “integrated unit” with other drones – was featured in a report on state broadcaster CCTV’s military channel on Monday (Oct 11).
The report claimed this “will make the combat formation scenes in the movies a reality”.
It followed a CCTV report on Oct 3 that also played up the future use of the Falcon, as it is known, to carry out strike operations based on its own information and that received from other drones.
The Falcon is a high-altitude drone – it can fly at up to 15,000 metres – with an endurance of 20 hours, and can reach a cruising speed of 600km/h.
Developed by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, or CASIC, its maiden flight came two years after it was first seen as a prototype at Airshow China in 2018.
Its chief designer, Ma Hongzhong, told CCTV that the drone’s high flight ceiling would give it an advantage in combat since that would put it out of the range of typical anti-aircraft firepower.
“The high flight ceiling will also add power when it comes to firing missiles because they will have a longer attack range,” he said in Monday’s report.
Footage aired in the report showed the WJ-700 carrying weapons including air-to-surface missiles.
Kelvin Wong, lead defence technology analyst at Jane’s, said the WJ-700 was at the centre of the People’s Liberation Army’s unmanned combat system.
“[The system] is ambitious, with many moving parts … but CASIC has over the years developed most, if not all, of the necessary components of the network,” he said.
“There are certainly still technical challenges to resolve – and of course further complicated by a capable adversary’s ability to degrade its effectiveness in the electromagnetic spectrum – but the building blocks are in place and appear to be mature enough for operationalisation in the foreseeable future.”
The unmanned combat system is understood to involve a communication component that enables multiple drones to interact via satellites and individual aircraft within the network as well as ground control stations, according to Jane’s.
China is the world’s largest manufacturer and developer of drones for both military and civilian purposes.
It unveiled two new UAVs at the country’s biggest air show last month – a high-altitude reconnaissance drone and an electronic attack vehicle.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.