BEIJING – China has tested its first stealth combat drone, state media said Friday, citing online photos of an aircraft resembling a small U.S. B-2 bomber and hailing the advance toward Western-level technology.
The test flight came weeks after Tokyo said a drone had flown near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, causing tensions to escalate by another notch.
The drone in Friday’s announcement, called the “Sharp Sword,” 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.
“The successful flight shows the nation has again narrowed the air-power disparity between itself and Western nations,” the state-run China Daily said.
It said Thursday’s test flight made China the “fourth power . . . capable of putting a stealth drone into the sky,” after the U.S., European Union and Britain.
Images posted online showed a sleek grey delta-wing aircraft apparently powered by a jet engine and resembling an American combat drone.
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.
Chinese authorities quickly censor any news or images exposed online by citizens that they deem sensitive, so it is unlikely they did not approve the reports.
State broadcaster CCTV, citing eyewitnesses, said on its international channel that the test flight lasted 20 minutes 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.”
The aircraft was developed by two subsidiaries of Aviation Industry Corp. of China, the country’s top aircraft manufacturer, the China Daily said.
China 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.
Beijing’s first aircraft carrier — a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine and named the Liaoning — went into service in September 2012 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 the Senkaku Islands 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 defense official said.
Tokyo later threatened to shoot down any such aircraft, a move that Beijing warned would amount to an “act of war.”