China recently announced it has successfully completed testing of its new FH-95, a one-ton UAV with a 250 kg (550 pound) payload and endurance of 24 hours. What makes the propeller-driven FH-95 special is that it is optimized for EW (Electronic Warfare) and networked (swarm) operations. This enables one or more FH-95s to patrol a large area for long periods collecting and cataloging electronic activity for ground controllers to analyze. FH-95 can also carry jamming equipment to interfere with enemy electronic activity. FH-95 combines long endurance with large and specialized payloads that make possible larger and more ambitious swarm operations.
The jamming can provide opportunities for the earlier (2021) FH-97 stealthy, jet-powered UAV to go after high-value targets. The FH-97 design is based on similar American low-cost stealthy UAVs to be used for the “loyal wingman” program. This involves one or more of these UAVs accompanying a F-22 or F-35 and protecting the manned aircraft as well as carrying out high-risk assignments. The loyal wingman UAVs can operate semi-independently but always under control of the manned aircraft. Several Western air forces are testing this concept. China prefers to concentrate on networked UAVs that can operate independently in an emergency (loss of the data link with ground controllers) but won’t risk friendly manned aircraft until after UAV swarms do their job first. Testing all the specialized software, including the vital network and EW capabilities comes net.
While the FH-97 is new, China already has several veteran propeller-driven armed UAVs that an exploit any attack opportunity the FH-95s create. Since 2016 China had armed UAVs that deliver the same performance as the 4.6-ton American Reaper. The Chinese version is the CH-5 but lighter (at three tons). The CH-5 has a 900 kg payload and can carry smart (GPS guided) bombs as well as laser guided missiles similar to the American Hellfire. CH-5 made its first flight in 2015, apparently has endurance of up to twenty hours, and is supposed to be available for delivery in late 2016. This is not the first of the Rainbow series to be armed. Since 2012 China has the CH-4, which is similar in shape and performance to the 1.2-ton American Predator. CH-4 weighs 1.1 tons and has an endurance of over 14 hours. Each CH-4 can carry 4 weapons (or electronic devices) under the wings, each weighing up to 100 kg. China offers Chinese-made weapons for the CH-4. Chief among these is a Hellfire clone, the AR-1. This is a 45 kg (99 pound) missile with a max range of 10 kilometers and a 10 kg (22 pound) warhead. AR-1 can be equipped with either GPS or laser guidance. The other weapon is a copy of the American SDB (small diameter bomb) which is a 128 kg (281 pound) GPS guided glide bomb in the shape of a missile with a penetrating warhead. The Chinese version is the FT-5 and is a 100 kg (220 pound) GPS guided bomb in the shape of a missile.
The Chinese versions are much cheaper (about half the price) than the American originals, but for that you get aircraft and missiles that have not had many of the bugs worked out nor achieved anything like the nearly two-decade track record of the Predator. The CH-4 was developed from the earlier (2010) CH-3. This is a 640 kg aircraft with 12 hours endurance and can carry two AR-1 missiles. CH-5 appears to be a scaled-up version of the CH-4.
China has exported these two UAVs to over a dozen countries, mainly in the Middle East and Africa. Most of the military UAVs delivered so far have been CH-3s and 200 smaller unarmed UAVs equipped for surveillance and reconnaissance. At the same time China has become the largest exporter of commercial UAVs which are used by police and commercial firms for a wide variety of tasks. In addition to lower prices and similar performance to American UAVs, the Chinese will sell these UAVs, with weapons, to anyone who can pay. That forced the Americans to adopt a similar policy.