Pictures released earlier this week by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) showing mysterious unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) hovering above and parked on the rear landing deck of a Chinese frigate at sea have left defense analysts scratching their heads.
The pictures, first published by Japanese media on Wednesday, were taken while three People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels — the Type 054A missile frigates Zhoushan and Xuzhou, and the electronic reconnaissance and missile tracking Beijixing — conducted exercises in the West Pacific, about 700km off Japan’s Okinotori.
A Japanese surveillance aircraft spotted the vessels on April 29 as they crossed from the East China Sea into the strait of Osumi, the first such crossing by PLAN vessels in nine years. The ships were again spotted on their return journey on Monday.
Aside from the rare crossing in a channel usually used by the US 7th Fleet, what mystified defense enthusiasts were two pictures released by the JMSDF, one showing three unmanned helicopters on the platform of the Zhoushan and another showing a similar type of UAV hovering above the vessel.
The People’s Liberation Army has a longstanding interest in UAV technology, and several civilian and military firms, including Aviation Industry Corp of China (AVIC), have been working on a variety of models. However, China has yet to confirm the successful development of an unmanned helicopter that is heavy enough and capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) at sea, where runways are in short supply.
Very few models worldwide have demonstrated the capability so far. One of them, the Camcopter S-100s, built by Austrian firm Schiebel Corp, held a successful trial at sea last month on board an Italian naval ship.
According to analysts, the UAVs seen on the Zhoushan bear a striking resemblance to the S-100. The S-100 was showcased at the Fourth China International Exhibition on Police and Anti-Terrorism Technology and Equipment Exhibition held in Beijing in April last year, and defense-related Chinese Web sites have paid close attention to the device.
Rumors have circulated in defense circles that China may have placed orders for several S-100s. Although the EU has an arms embargo on China, the rules appear to have been relaxed in recent years, limiting exports to purely defensive platforms.
Foreign clients of the S-100 include Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Libya and South Korea, which experienced a crash in Incheon on May 11, killing one person. Pakistan has also expressed interest in acquiring the UAV.
Another possibility raised by some experts is that Chinese firms reverse-engineered the S-100, as they have often done with foreign technology.
One model, China’s Sunward Tech Star-lite SVU200, which conducted its maiden flight on land recently, looks very similar to the S-100. However, Greg Waldron of Flight Global, who attended the Beijing Air Show in September, where the SVU200 was showcased, told the Taipei Times the manufacturer had not mentioned sea capabilities for the aircraft.
Unmanned vehicles can serve a number of military purposes, including electro-optic surveillance, reconnaissance, target acquisition radar and transmission relay.
Such capabilities substantially increase a navy’s ability to monitor and control its surroundings. Larger models can also carry a variety of missiles.