Drone Wars: China’s Rainbow Drone Unveiled

CH-4RainbowAs part of their ongoing efforts to become a world power, China has spared no investment when it comes to the development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology. And after several successful missile tests, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is all set to receive the next-generation aerial drone. Known as the CH-4, the development of this UAV is just the latest in China’s attempt to catch up to western developers.

Although China’s drone technology may be several years behind top manufacturers in the US and Israel, the country’s UAV manufacturers are hoping that their mid-range prices and middling technology will lure potential customers from developing nations. During the unveiling, which took place at the beinnial Zhuhai Air Show in late August, officials from Kenya, Russia and other countries were on hand to witness this an other examples of China’s exportable UAVs.

CH-4Rainbow2 Representatives from China Aerospace Long-March International, a division of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), were on hand at the presentation and spoke with relative candor about the CH-4 and two other drones the company was showing for the first time. Guo Qian, a director at a division of CASC, when talking about the interest and marketability of the company’s military grade drones, had the following to say:

We’ve been contacting many countries, especially from Africa and Asia. They are quite interested in the intermediate and short-range UAVs because they are portable and low-cost.

Similarly, Li Pingkun , the head of the Rainbow 4 project at the aerospace corporation, told state television the drone could make a long-distance hit on a target with a margin of error of less than 1.5 metres. He said the system was very precise because it used several methods to guide missiles or smart bombs to their target. As he told ChinaNews, the drone is “well-positioned to carry out the subsequent missions.”

CH-4Rainbow1The unveiling of this drone comes at a time when the PLA is actively and publicly promoting the use of drones by its military personnel. During the show, the CASC also displayed a handful of smaller short range drones and set up a flashy ground-to-ceiling UAV attack simulation compete with a dozen technicians glued to computer screens in a the make-believe war room. As Guo explained:

Our company has set up a pretty aggressive sales target for UAVs, but the global market competition is quite fierce. There are many similar products in the global market and they are quite mature, so we haven’t had a big impact in the market. It will take some time for our products to be known and accepted.

The Rainbow 4 is the CASC’s latest creation, and is intended to act as the PLA’s answer to the MQ-9 Reaper – a hunter-killer drone mainly used by the US military for reconnaissance and high-precision air strikes. The CH-4 can carry a payload of 345 kg (760 lbs) of missiles of precision-guided bombs, can reach an altitude of 8 km (26000 feet), has a range of 3,500 kilometers, and fly for up to 30 hours depending on how heavy a payload it is carrying.

China_dronetestHowever, it remains much slower than the Reaper, which can fly at a top speed of 482 km/h compared to the Rainbow’s 235 km/h. In addition, the MQ-9 has a much higher payload of 1700 kg  (3800 lbs), which works out to six Hellfire missiles or precision-guided bombs. And while it has greater range – 3000 km vs. the MQ-9’s 1850 km – the Reaper has a service ceiling of up to 18,000 meters.

The PLA also has limited experience in using drones in combat zones; whereas for the USAF, drone use has become second nature. But above all, the most glaring aspect of the “drone gap” is the fact that this latest Chinese drone was not the result of indigenous design or innovation. Much like other aspects of China’s stealth and weapon’s development, it is the result of mimicry.

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)(Released)Nevertheless, China’s plan to market the technology to other nations does mean that the use of UAVs is likely to become much more universal in the coming years. Beyond the US, NATO, Israel, Russia and China, middle powers like India, Pakistan, Brazil and various Sub-Saharan African nations are likely to have their own soon. In addition, certain “rogue states” – i.e. Iran, North Korea, Syria – are likely to have their own as well.

The term “Drone Wars” is likely to become very literal as a result!

Source: gizmodo.com, scmp.com, globalpost.com

Drone Wars: Bigger, Badder, and Deadlier

UAVsIn their quest to “unman the front the lines”, and maintain drone superiority over other states, the US armed forces have been working on a series of designs that will one day replace their air fleet of Raptors and Predators. Given that potential rivals, like Iran and China, are actively imitating aspects of these designs in an added incentive, forcing military planners to think bigger and bolder.

Consider the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), a jet-powered drone that is the size of a Boeing 757 passenger jet. Developed by Northrop Grumman and measuring some 40 meters (130 feet) from wingtip to wingtip, this “super drone” is intended to replace the US Navy’s fleet of RQ-4 Global Hawks, a series of unmanned aerial vehicles that have been in service since the late 90’s.

Triton_droneThanks to a sensor suite that supplies a 360-degree view at a radius of over 3700 kms (2,300 miles), the Triton can provide high-altitude, real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) at heights and distances in excess of any of its competitors. In addition, the drone possess unique de-icing and lightning protection capabilities, allowing to plunge through the clouds to get a closer view at surface ships.

And although Triton has a higher degree of autonomy than the most autonomous drones, operators on the ground are still relied upon to obtain high-resolution imagery, use radar for target detection and provide information-sharing capabilities to other military units. Thus far, Triton has completed flights up to 9.4 hours at altitudes of 15,250 meters (50,000 feet) at the company’s manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California.

?????????????????????????????????Mike Mackey, Northrop Grumman’s Triton UAS program director, had the following to say in a statement:

During surveillance missions using Triton, Navy operators may spot a target of interest and order the aircraft to a lower altitude to make positive identification. The wing’s strength allows the aircraft to safely descend, sometimes through weather patterns, to complete this maneuver.

Under an initial contract of $1.16 billion in 2008, the Navy has ordered 68 of the MQ-4C Triton drones with expected delivery in 2017. Check out the video of the Triton during its most recent test flight below:


But of course, this jetliner-sized customer is just one of many enhancements the US armed forces is planning on making to its drone army. Another is the jet-powered, long-range attack drone that is a planned replacement for the aging MQ-1 Predator system. It’s known as the Avenger (alternately the MQ-1 Predator C), a next-generation unmanned aerial vehicle that has a range of close to 3000 kms (1800 miles).

Designed by General Atomics, the Avenger is designed with Afghanistan in mind; or rather, the planned US withdrawal by the end 0f 2014. Given the ongoing CIA anti-terrorism operations in neighboring Pakistan are expected to continue, and airstrips in Afghanistan will no longer be available, the drones they use will need to have significant range.

(c) Kollected Pty Ltd.

The Avenger prototype made its first test flight in 2009, and after a new round of tests completed last month, is now operationally ready. Based on the company’s more well-known MQ-9 Reaper drone, Avenger is designed to perform high-speed, long-endurance surveillance or strike missions, flying up to 800 kms (500 mph) at a maximum of 15,250 meters (50,000 feet) for as long as 18 hours.

Compared to its earlier prototype, the Avenger’s fuselage has been increased by four feet to accommodate larger payloads and more fuel, allowing for extended missions. It can carry up to 1000 kilograms (3,500 pounds) internally, and its wingspan is capable of carrying weapons as large as a 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and a full-compliment of Hellfire missiles.

Avenger_drone1Switching from propeller-driven drones to jets will allow the CIA to continue its Pakistan strikes from a more distant base if the U.S. is forced to withdraw entirely from neighboring Afghanistan. And according to a recent Los Angeles Times report, the Obama administration is actively making contingency plans to maintain surveillance and attacks in northwest Pakistan as part of its security agreement with Afghanistan.

The opportunity to close the gap between the need to act quickly and operating from a further distance with technology isn’t lost on the US military, or the company behind the Avenger. Frank Pace, president of the Aircraft Systems Group at General Atomics, said in a recent statement:

Avenger provides the right capabilities for the right cost at the right time and is operationally ready today. This aircraft offers unique advantages in terms of performance, cost, timescale, and adaptability that are unmatched by any other UAS in its class.

??????????????????????????????What’s more, one can tell by simply looking at the streamlined fuselage and softer contours that stealth is part of the package. By reducing the drone’s radar cross-section (RCS) and applying radar-absorbing materials, next-generation drone fleets will also be mimicking fifth-generation fighter craft. Perhaps we can expect aerial duels between remotely-controlled fighters to follow not long after…

And of course, there’s the General Atomic’s Avenger concept video to enjoy:


Sources:
wired.com, (2)

The Future is Here: The Invisibility Cloak!

quantum-stealth-fieldInvisibility cloaks have long been considered the next frontier of modern warfare. With stealth aircraft, stealth ships and even stealth tanks in service or on well on their way, it seems like the time is ripe for a stealth soldier. But difficulties remains. Whereas cloaking planes, ships and tanks is a matter of simply coating them in materials that can obscure them from radar and thermal imagine, soldiers need camouflage that can move, bend and flex with them.

In recent years, the efforts to produce a working “invisibility cloak” have born considerable fruit. And while most of these took the form of large, cumbersome, desk-mounted constructions that were more of a proof of concept for the material being tested, they did demonstrate that the technology itself worked. This was certainly true of the “cloak” which was created by scientists at Duke University in November of 2012.

INVISIBILITY-CLOAKAnd then came news the following month that a Canadian company named Hyperstealth developed a material that renders the wearer “completely invisible by bending light waves around the target.” Known as “Quantum Stealth”, this true cloak is an apparent follow-up to their SmartCamo – a material that could reportedly adjust its camouflage markings to match its surroundings – that was released at the International Camouflage Symposium in 2010.

Unfortunately, due to security reasons, little was ever known about SmartCamo other than its reported abilities. The same holds true for Quantum Stealth, which the company has been forced to remain clandestine about due the demands of the US Army, to whom they are contracted. So until such time as it enters widespread use, the details and inner workings of the technology will remain inaccessible.

invisibility_cloak1Luckily, the University of Texas in Austin is under no such constrictions, and it is from them that the latest and greatest news comes. In addition to being composed of conventional materials, their new cloak measures a mere 166 micrometers thick and is capable of obscuring an object from multiple directions at once. And though it may not be able to render a soldier truly invisible, it does render them all but invisible to radar detection, which is the intent here.

The fabrication process involved placing a 66µm-thick sheet of carbon (or a metascreen) onto a a 100µm-thick sheet of flexible polycarbonate. The copper is patterned specifically so that the scattered light from the cloak and the cloaked object cancel each other out. This flexible sheet also allows the cloak to conform to the shape of the object, or person, and provides cloaking from microwave radiation from all directions.

invisibility_cloak_uoftNow here’s where things get literal. The researchers responsible for this breakthrough have indicated that, in theory, this cloak could be used to cloak visible light as well. After all, microwaves, infrared and visible light are all physically identical; they are just waves that oscillate at different frequencies. And their design would be more capable of doing this than any cloak composed of metamaterials.

Still, size and scale are still an issue. Whereas their new patterned material scattering technique is capable of hiding an object from multiple directions, it also inversely scales with wavelength. That means that it is only capable of hiding micrometer-scale objects from 400-800THz of visible light. Still, this is exciting news and a step in the right direction!

Before we know it, stealth troopers could be marching all over the planet, invisible to the naked eye and any means of radar detection… Holy crap, what a scary thought! Is it too late to rethink this technology?

future_soldierSource: Extremetech.com, (2)

China’s Drones Trigger Fears of Drone Race

Dark SwordTwice a year, China showcases the latest in military technology at a show held in Zhuhai city, in the Guangdong province.  During the last show, held in November, a series of new unmanned aerial vehicle,s most of which bore a striking resemblance to the American drones that have been conducting attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the past few years. Naturally, observers in the west were rather concerned with the wider implications.

Until recent years, the United States, Britain and Israel have maintained supremacy in the field of UAV’s. But much like stealth technology and naval aviation, the Red Dragon appears to be catching up by leaps and bounds. What’s more, it is likely China intends to take full advantage of using unmanned aerial vehicles to achieve its national interests, which includes their territorial disputes with Taiwan over the Senkaku Islands and South China Sea and Japan.

Sukhoi PAK FAIn response, the Defense Science Board released an unclassified report in they claimed: “In a worrisome trend, China has ramped up research in recent years faster than any other country. It displayed its first unmanned system model at the Zhuhai air show five years ago, and now every major manufacturer for the Chinese military has a research center devoted to unmanned systems.”

The report went on to say that “the military significance of China’s move into unmanned systems is alarming [suggested that China could] easily match or outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems, rapidly close the technology gaps and become a formidable global competitor in unmanned systems.”

Chinese_dronesTwo Chinese models on display at the Zhuhai show — the CH-4 and the Wing Loong, or Pterodactyl — appeared to be clones of the Reaper and Predator drones that are fixtures in the U.S. arsenal. A larger drone, the Xianglong, or Soaring Dragon, is a long-range, high-altitude model that would seem to be a cousin of the RQ-4 Global Hawk.

Huang Wei, the director of the CH-4 program at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, told the state-run newspaper Global Times that his lightweight drone can carry cameras, ground-searching radar, missiles and smart bombs. “As the Americans say,” he said, “the U.A.V. is fit for missions that are dirty, dangerous and dull.”

What will this mean for the future? Drone wars? Or a new arms race where increasingly complicated unmanned aerial vehicles and stealth fighters are involved? Difficult to say, but with the advances of such weapons systems in other countries, it was only a matter of time before China followed suit. One can only hope, as the saying goes “that cooler heads prevail” before they are used in an open conflict.

Source: policymic.com, nytimes.com

Stealth Aircraft of the World

F-35Like many guys, I went through a period in which I was highly fascinated by aircraft, to the point that I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Years later… well, not much as changed. I still love aircraft, and sometimes entertain fantasies of flying one! Perhaps an aerospace fighter, if and when aliens try to invade us! But I digress…

Of all the aircraft that I’ve ever studied, stealth craft remain the most cool and interesting. And in honor of this ongoing fascination, I’ve decided to do a list of the world’s various stealth fighters, stealth bombers, and miscellaneous stealth craft. Due to the fact that many new ones are under development and the subject of much secrecy, I’ve decided to stick to those that are currently or have been in operation.

I present them now, in alphabetical order. Enjoy!

B-2 Spirit:
B-2There’s nothing like a classic… a big, bad classic! A strategic stealth bomber, the Spirit is one of the first stealth craft to be developed, though its entry into service was overshadowed by the F-117 (see below). A long range aircraft, the Spirit is capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons. Developed in conjunction being Boeing and Northrop Grumman, development began during the late 70’s and continued into the 80’s.

It’s original purpose was to penetrate Soviet anti-aircraft defenses and deploying nuclear weapons against high-value targets. With the end of the Cold War, the program was scaled back and the B2 did not see active service until 1997. It was has participated in the Kosovo War in 99 and was deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq for conventional, long-range bombing missions.

The Spirit requires a crew of two and contains two internal bomb bays in which munitions are stored, either on a rotary launcher or two bomb-racks. The B2 was the first to carry weapons in this fashion, which results less radar visibility than externally mounting of munitions. These internal weapons bays are capable of equipping conventional bombs, cruise missiles, and nuclear weapons. However, the bomber carries no surface to air missiles or guns, relying on its stealth technology to avoid encounters with enemy fighters.

Chengdu J-20:
Chendu-J20China’s been making a lot of waves in the news lately thanks to the development of its stealth fighter program. And though they may be thirty years late to the party, they are in a perfect position to take advantage of all the latest developments. Much like all 5th generation stealth craft, the J-20 is based on the concept of a twin-engine multi-role fighter aircraft that is stealthy, not undetectable.

Beginning in the 1990’s, the J-20 was unveiled in 2011, though it is not expected to enter service between 2017 to 2019. However, China has publicized the creation of this fighter extensively as part of its modernization efforts. The source of the technology remains unknown, though some speculate that it was reverse engineered from samples taken from the downed F-117 in Serbia (see below). Chinese sources deny this, however, claiming it was the result of home-grown innovation.

And like other 5th generation craft, the J-20 has a belly-mounted internal weapons bay for short and long-range air-to-air missiles, and two smaller lateral weapon bays behind the air inlets for short-range weapons. From some photos obtained of the fighter, the armament capacity appears to be the same as the F-22 Raptor, with six weapons mounts.

F-117 Nighthawk:
F117-NighthawkThe first ever stealth craft to be unveiled, the Nighthawk will forever be known the “Stealth Fighter”, despite its ground-attack role. A single seat, twin-engine craft, the Nighthawk was developed in the late 70’s by Lockheed Martin. By 1983, it was introduced to the US Air Force but was not officially unveiled until 1988 when it began participating in military operations.

The first was in 1989 during the US invasion of Panama. However, this would be overshadowed by its more publicized role in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. There, it took part in 1,300 sorties, scored direct hits on 1,600 high-value targets in Iraq and was one of the few US and Allied aircraft to actually take part in strikes on downtown Baghdad. Throughout that war, and despite the proliferation of AAA, not a single craft was shot down.

During the Kosovo war, in 1999, the first F-117 was shot down outside of Belgrade by a Serbian missile brigade that had been experimenting with short-wave detection. This one incidents remains the only combat loss in the aircraft’s operational history, which ended in 2003 due to the introduction of the F-22 and other newer generations of stealth aircraft.

F-22 Raptor:
F-22A_Raptor_-03-4058
The original 5th generation fighter, the Raptor is a single-seat, twin-engine supermaneuverable fighter aircraft that uses stealth technology in a revolutionary way. Unlike previous generations of fighters, like the F-117, that attempted to be invisible on radar, the F-22 was designed to be difficult to detect, thus affording it a tactical advantage against enemy aircraft. Hence, it was designed primarily as an air superiority fighter, but has additional capabilities that include ground attack, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence roles.

Development of this fighter craft began in the early 80’s with the intention of replacing the older F-15 and F-16 fighters, largely in response to the development of newer Soviet aircraft (such as the SU-27 and MiG-29). By the early 90’s, the first prototypes were released and highly publicized, with the first test flight taking place in 1997. In addition to its internal bays, thrust vectoring, and state-of-the-art control systems, the F-22 also incorporated stealthy materials and molded surfaces to minimize radar signature.

Since it entered service in 2005, the production of F-22’s has been stalled and restarted a few times over, largely in response to the development of the F-35. In 2010, funding for further production was officially cut. Nevertheless, the F-22 remains one of the most imitated designs in the world, inspiring the Sukhoi PAK FA and the Chendu J-20.

F-35 Lightning II:
f-35s
The latest 5th generation stealth craft to be developed in the US, the Lighting II is a revolutionary design that incorporates all previous innovations in the field of stealth fighters. Developed in the 90’s as part of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, the F-35 was intended to replace the aging F-16, A-10, F/A-18, and the British and American Harrier jump jets.

Though not officially in service yet, it made its debut flight in 2006 and is expected to join the US Air Force by 2016. In total, three variants have been proposed, each designed to fill a different type of mission profile. The F-35A is a conventional take and landing fighter, the B variant incorporates short-take off and vertical-landing capabilities, while the C is designed to be a carrier-based model.

Much like its predecessor, the F-22, the Lightning II possesses thrust vectoring, meaning it can adjust the angle of its thruster to assist in difficult turns. In the F-35B model, the engine nozzle is capable of being aimed straight down and, combined with a centrally-mounted turbofan, allows the craft to hover in place and land vertically. It’s internal weapons bays, stealthy shape and materials – all of which are adapted from the F-22 – also give it a low radar signature. In summary, it is the most advanced and versatile stealth fighter yet to be introduced to the world.

Sukhoi T-50:
Sukhoi_T-50
Last, we have Russia’s answer to the 5th generation stealth fighter challenge. Beginning in the late 1980’s as a successor to the Mig-29 and SU-27, the T-50 is the culmination of Russia’s PAK FA (Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation) program. A single-seat, twin engine jet fighter, the T-50 represents the former Soviet blocs efforts to develop weapons comparable to the Western Allies.

The T-50 made its first flight in 2010 and is expected to join the Russian Air Force by 2015/16. Much like all 5th generation fighters currently in development or in operation, it’s armaments consist of two internal bays for missiles and either one or two GSh-301 30mm cannons.

In terms of its profile, the T-50 bears a striking resemblance to the F-22. However, it has some clear differences, such as the absence of thrust vectoring. However, it also takes advantage of some of the latest in avionics technology. These include three X-band arrays planted in the front and sides of the plane, as well two L-band placed in the wings. This allows for greater detection abilities, especially where stealth craft are involved. What’s more, the new technology enables fighter to fighter information sharing.

Final Thoughts:
Pretty cool huh? Given the advance of technology over the years, it seems like only a matter of time before fighters incorporate direct control through neural links, and polymorphic frames that can change shape based on altitude and air resistance. What’s more, in a few years time, we’re likely to see aircraft that can take advantage of the latest in adaptive camouflage and real-life cloaking technology, making the terms “stealth fighter” and “undetectable” quite literal! Cool indeed!