Beijing’s prototype killer drone has flown for the first time. A photo posted to the Chinese Internet on Nov. 21 depicts the jet-powered robot lifting off from a runway against a typically polluted and overcast Chinese sky.
We know very little about the drone, apparently named Li Jian—“Sharp Sword” in English. A pair of grainy photos shot at long distance and posted online in May seemed to show the ‘bot taxiing at the airfield of its manufacturer, the Hongdu Aviation Industry Group of eastern China. An apparent earlier photo of the drone appeared on a Russian Website in March.
Sharp Sword is reportedly a co-development of Hongdu and aerospace firm Shenyang. The single-engine drone seems to sport the tailless flying-wing shape shared by several U.S.-, European- and Russian-made prototypes and demonstrators dating back to the mid-1990s. The U.S. Navy’s tailless X-47B is a precursor of what should be the world’s first operational jet-powered armed drone.
But Sharp Sword seems to most closely match the Russian MiG Skat robot. Not coincidentally, China often borrows heavily from Russian warplane designs—and even illegally copies some planes acquired from Moscow.
In any event, the flying wing shape, also used by the U.S. B-2 stealth bomber, is ideal for radar-evading designs. China has moved quickly in recent years to catch up to American stealth technology. Since 2010 Beijing has introduced two new stealthy fighter prototypes and is apparently also working on a radar-evading bomber.
Beijing is also trying to match America’s huge and technologically advanced fleet of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Before Sharp Sword, China unveiled a prop-driven armed drone similar to the U.S. Predator, plus a jet-powered long-range spy UAV akin to the American Global Hawk. Chinese navy warships have launched small drones not unlike the U.S. Scan Eagle.
The latest edition of the Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese military, published in May, anticipated Sharp Sword’s public debut. “The acquisition and development of longer-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles … and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, will increase China’s ability to conduct long-range reconnaissance and strike operations,” the report stated.
First flights make for great PR, but the hardest part of drone development takes place in laboratories, workshops and cubicle farms, where scientists, engineers and coders try to build and integrate the software, data-links, control systems and payloads that transform what are in essence big model airplanes into fully functional weapons.
It’s hard to say how much success China has had with this softer side of killer drone technology. The Pentagon China report specifically cites “solid-state electronics and micro processors [and] guidance and control systems” as techs that Beijing finds it easier to buy or steal than to develop on its own.