The Complex

Does China have a stealth drone?

While Iran's got a somewhat less than "Epic" new propeller-powered UAV, China might be jumping on the stealth drone bandwagon sooner than you thought.

Extremely blurry photos posted on Internet forums over the past few months may show a Chinese stealth UAV, supposedly called the Lijan or Sharp Sword, along the lines of the U.S. Navy's X-47B.

Until now, we've seen photos of Chinese-made versions of propeller-driven drones that strongly resemble their American counterparts like the MQ-9 Reaper.

We've also seen photos of what may be a Chinese attempt at building a jet-powered spy drone similar to the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude strategic spy plane.

China has been developing what amount to mock-ups and model airplanes of stealth drones for years now. But it's unclear whether the plane shown above is an actual production jet, or just another mock up. (It might also be a fake, like this false image of a Chinese stealth jet that was circulating the Internet in 2011.)

While there's no way of verifying these grainy photos show a plane that could actually fly, Wired's Danger Room points out that the Pentagon's latest report on Chinese military capabilities says that the PLA is working to field "Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles [that] will increase China's ability to conduct long-range reconnaissance and strike operations."  The Pentagon usually describes stealth drones like the X-47B and others with very similar language.

Some online forums claim the aircraft is being built for use by the Chinese air force and navy and that it conducted ground tests in December 2012 and is being readied for a flight test later this year. The introduction of such a weapon would make sense given the PLA's desire to project greater power throughout the Western Pacific. A partial list of platforms to support this strategy includes the J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters, aircraft carriers, and strategic jet transport planes.

The U.S. Navy is hoping to have a fleet of carrier-launcher stealth jet drones that can perform long-range surveillance and strike missions by the early 2020s. The Navy sees these jets as key to its strategy of operating in the Pacific Ocean, particularly since China's development of weapons aims to keep U.S. ships far from its shores. The battle for unmanned aerial supremacy is definitely heating up.

secretprojects.co.uk

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