ZHUHAI, CHINA – China is unleashing stealth drones and pilotless aircraft fitted with AK-47 rifles onto world markets, racing to catch up to U.S. technology and adding to a fleet that has already seen combat action in the Middle East.
Combat drones were among the jet fighters, missiles and other military hardware shown off recently at Airshow China, the country’s biggest aerospace industry exhibition.
A delta-winged stealth drone received much attention, highlighting China’s growing production of sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles seeking to compete with the U.S. military’s massive fleet.
The CH-7 — a charcoal-gray UAV unveiled at the air show — is as long as a tennis court and has a 22-meter (72-foot) wingspan. It can fly at more than 800 kph (500 mph) and at an altitude of 13,000 meters (42,650 feet). The CH-7’s maiden flight is slated for late next year.
“We are convinced that with this product clients will quickly contact us,” said Shi Wen, chief engineer of the Caihong (Rainbow) series of drones at state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.
CASC has clients in around 10 countries, Shi said, declining to name them. “Some things remain sensitive,” he said.
China’s drones are now flying in the Middle East; Beijing has fewer qualms than the United States when it comes to selling its military UAVs to other nations.
The Iraqi Army has used CASC’s CH-4 drone to conduct at least 260 strikes against the Islamic State group, Chinese media reported earlier this year.
In Yemen, where a civil war has sparked what the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the United Arab Emirates military has reportedly targeted a Shiite rebel chief with a Chinese-made drone.
“The Chinese have produced an enormous range of drones, and this seems to be an area that they expect to make great progress,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “The export and deployment of them should enable them to improve on design as they get tested in a real combat environment.”
The United States has plenty of lethal drones but has had restrictions on exporting them out of concern that the technology could be copied or used against its own troops.
Some of those restrictions were lifted in April for U.S. allies, with President Donald Trump’s administration citing competition from Chinese “knockoffs,” but even a solid ally such as Jordan has not been able to buy U.S. drones.
The U.S. rules gave Beijing the opportunity to fill the void and sell its drones to other countries, but China’s “competitive” prices also helped, said James Char, an expert on the Chinese military at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
China has exported its armed UAVs to countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Char said.
At the Zhuhai air show, Chinese drone makers rubbed their hands at the business opportunities.
“Security is a real problem in the Middle East. There’s a real need for military drones over there,” said Wu Xiaozhen, overseas project director at a company named Ziyan.
At the company’s stand, Wu handed out a brochure showing its star product: the Blowfish A2, a 62-centimeter-tall (24-inch) helicopter drone with Kevlar armor.
“We can add an AK-47 or a machine gun. Different weapons can be installed — whatever the customer wants,” she said.
Abu Dhabi is already a customer; Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are in discussions with the company to acquire the drone.
“We are targeting Western markets, too. Our product is of great quality,” she said. “We don’t fear competition from the Europeans and the Americans.”
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