Caihong-7 drone credit Liang XuXinhua News AgencyPA Images 181218

Frontline Tech: Is This Military Stealth Drone A Game Changer?

China has made a leap forward in military technology, according to technology expert David Hambling.

Caihong-7 drone credit Liang XuXinhua News AgencyPA Images 181218

Full-size model of CH-7 unmanned aircraft system exhibited at the 12th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition (Picture: Liang Xu/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images).

By David Hambling, technology expert

The CH-7 or Caihong-7 drone unveiled at China’s Zhuhai air show on 5 November is brand new but has a familiar look - all curves with no straight lines or sharp corners, the body merged with the wings.

It’s a shape common to stealthy aircraft, like the B-2 bomber and F-22 fighter, and it shows China has made a leap forward in military technology.

The CH-7 is smaller than a manned jet, with a wingspan of 22 metres and a maximum weight of 13,000 kilos, making it about a third the size of the UK’s new F-35.

Its cruising speed and agility are moderate, but stealth makes it a game changer.

Radar, first fielded to defend Britain during the Blitz during the Second World War, is the key to air warfare.

Radar works like a searchlight, scanning the sky with a narrow beam of radio waves.

These waves bounce back off aircraft and are picked up by the radar receiver.

Even 70 years ago, radar detected aircraft at much greater ranges than human observers, as well as working in the dark and through clouds.

Radar operators discovered from the start that some aircraft were easier to spot than others.

Bigger aircraft with more straight edges and corners showed up best, and aircraft made of wood rather than metal were harder and gave smaller radar reflections.

However, the science involved was not well understood and attempts to reduce radar signature were hit-and-miss.

In the 1970s and a new technology emerged, known as ‘stealth’ – systematic use of a combination of different to make aircraft disappear from to radar.

A vehicle-mounted warning radar system attached to an air-defense brigade under the PLA 78th Group Army 151118 CREDIT Chinese Ministry of Defence
A Chinese vehicle-mounted warning radar system in near the Bohai Bay (Picture: Chinese Ministry of National Defence).

The two main aspects of stealth are shaping and coatings.

Stealth shaping means ensuring that the aircraft is composed smooth curves which reflect radar energy away, rather than bouncing it back to the emitter, hence those rounded stealthy shapes.

Coatings are special radar absorbent materials which absorb radio waves rather than reflecting them, like black paint to make a plane harder to see in the dark.

While stealth cannot make aircraft invisible to radar, it dramatically reduces the range at when they can be spotted.

A stealthy F-35 is a thousand times smaller on radar than a non-stealthy Typhoon – in fact, it’s smaller on radar than a large bird.  

A stealthy attack aircraft may get close enough to release weapons before it is detected; a stealthy fighter can engage other aircraft, or avoid them, without being seen.

F-35B refuels over UK airspace Picture RAF.j
An F-35 is a thousand times smaller on radar than a non-stealthy Typhoon (Picture: RAF).

While existing drones like the Reaper are only used where there are no air defences, stealth drones can go anywhere.

They are also cheaper and far more expendable than manned aircraft. If you are sending in a strike force against tough defences, then stealthy drones have all the advantages.

This combination makes the CH-7 a potent weapon against Western forces.

It can use its stealth for reconnaissance, finding, identifying and tracking targets including naval vessels. It also carries weapons.

"The CH-7 also has internal weapons bays, so it is capable of launching weapons, like anti-radiation missiles, air-to-ground or anti-ship missiles and long-distance precision-guided bombs," Shi Wen, the chief engineer on the CH-7 told China’s Global Times newspaper at the drone’s unveiling.

Others have planned similar drones. The UK has its own stealth strike drone program, the Taranis developed by BAE Systems, but this is just a technology demonstrator and there are no plans for an operational version.

Taranis is an unmanned drone developed by BAE Systems.

There is also a European collaborative project, nEURon, being developed by Dassault, but again this is a demonstrator rather than a prototype.

The US, the big spender in military aircraft, used to have a lead in this area.

The CH-7 looks suspiciously like a copy of the American X-47 prototype which flew in 2011. But replacing their human Top Gun pilots with drones was a step too far for the US Navy. The X-47 was discontinued in favour of an unmanned tanker drone, the MQ-25 Stingray.

Analysis of its landing gear suggests that the CH-7 is designed for carrier operations. China has a single aircraft carrier, being used to gain experience of flight operations, and is currently constructing another four.

With the CH-7, the Chinese will gain the ability to launch waves of stealthy attack aircraft in operations on the disputed South China Sea.

The CH-7 is not likely to be fielded immediately and will have another one or two years of flight testing.

But it shows that China has the capability to build advanced stealth drones, which would have a clear role in their long-term strategic plans.

Superiority can no longer be taken for granted.