China has tested its first stealth combat drone, state media said yesterday, citing online photos of an aircraft resembling a shrunken US B2 bomber and hailing the advance toward Western-level technology.
The test flight of the “Sharp Sword” unmanned aircraft is another step in China’s years-long military buildup, with its defense spending now the second highest in the world and growing by double-digit percentages each year.
It comes weeks after Tokyo said a drone had flown near East China Sea islands claimed by both it and Beijing, ratcheting tensions between the rivals up another notch.
“The successful flight shows the nation has again narrowed the air-power disparity between itself and Western nations,” the China Daily newspaper said, adding that the flight made China the “fourth power ... capable of putting a stealth drone into the sky.”
Images posted online showed a sleek grey delta-wing aircraft apparently powered by a jet engine and resembling a US combat drone.
State broadcaster CCTV, citing eyewitnesses, said on its international channel that the test flight lasted 20 minutes on Thursday afternoon in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
The flight “implies that China has made the leap from drones to combat drones,” it said, calling it a move of “major significance.”
Hong Kong-based military expert Andrei Chang said that by producing a heavy combat drone, China had achieved a milestone claimed by few countries — the US, Russia and France — but the design of the aircraft appeared “a little bit naive.”
Unlike in the US version, the engine appeared to be exposed, which would reduce its stealth capabilities, said Chang, editor of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, adding that China did not have “enough experience” in the field.
Beijing is steadily building its military muscle and unveiled its first stealth fighter, the J-20, in early 2011, though it is not expected to enter service until 2018.
China’s first aircraft carrier — a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine and named the Liaoning — went into service in September last year, but is not expected to be fully operational for several years.
A drone was at the center of a recent spat between Beijing and Tokyo, whose dispute over islands which Taiwan also claims and calls the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkakus in Japan, has raised concerns of conflict.
An unidentified unmanned aircraft flew near the islands in September, where China routinely conducts maritime patrols, prompting Japan to scramble fighter jets. The aircraft came from the northwest and returned in that direction, a Japanese defense official said.
Tokyo later threatened to shoot down any such aircraft, a move that Beijing warned would amount to an “act of war.”
Chinese state media widely reported the new aircraft in close detail, although they said the test flight was first revealed by ordinary Internet users on a popular military Web forum, cjdby.net.
The aircraft was developed by two subsidiaries of Aviation Industry Corp of China, the country’s top aircraft manufacturer, the China Daily said.