China just , a portable killer drone that a soldier can carry and then launch from the field to track down and attack opponents. The Chinese are not the first in this area—the U.S. unveiled the in 2011 and has used it in Afghanistan. But this is a big move for the Chinese military.
Chinese forces fly a bewildering variety of drones, from small hand-launched systems to the giant a twin-fuselage aircraft designed to detect stealth aircraft at long range. Some are copies of Western models: After shooting down U.S. Firebee drones over their territory in the 1960's, the Chinese drone in 1972. In addition, China has a vast number of civil companies in the drone business. Most celebrated is DJI, which has about a 70 percent share of the consumer drone market.
But the CH-901, shown off at the , is China's first tactical attack drone. It has two configurations, carrying either an explosive warhead or additional cameras and a recovery parachute. This is an approach apparently copied from Israeli drones like uVision's Hero-30. The CH-901's takeoff weight is 20 lbs, compared to less than 6 lbs. for the U.S. Switchblade.
The reason for the size is the payload, which can be more than 6 lbs. While Switchblade's sub-one-pound warhead is useful against personnel and light vehicles, the CL-901 will be able to take out a wider variety of targets. In this respect it is similar to the Polish , which can be armed with a fragmentation charge or a shaped charge warhead capable of penetrating four inches of armor and destroying tanks and light armoured vehicles. China's drone, is almost twice the size of Warmate, though. A six-pound warhead might not be able to go through the front armor of a main battle tank like the M1 Abrams, but it could breach the thin top armor in an attack from above. Lighter vehicles like the M2 Bradley would be easy game.
The standard CH-901 configuration is a group of three drones, one launch tube and a controller, with a total weight of a hundred pounds. China calls this "man portable" (presumably the load can be split between two or more soldiers), or it can be fitted to a light vehicle like an SUV. According to the makers, the drone cruises at 40 to 75 mph with an endurance of two hours in the reconnaissance configuration or one hour as an attack drone, with a range of about ten miles. The reconnaissance version has an estimated lifespan of 20 missions.
The CH-901 is sold by China Poly Defense, which claims to be one of the country's . In February 2013, China Poly Technologies (of which is a part), was sanctioned by the US Department of State for breaching the "." The company denies any breach occurred. The CH-designation suggests that the drone was designed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, responsible for unmanned military aircraft from the CH-1 in 2000 to the recent CH-803.
The CH-901 is said to be able to detect targets at a range of more than a mile from an altitude of 1,500 feet, but this would depend very much on the nature of the target. A sniper hiding in rocks is not so easy to spot as a convoy of trucks on a road.
While some metrics of the new drone have been revealed, on the battlefield there are other important factors to consider. One of these is the guidance system. The Switchblade operator acquires a target using the on-board camera (visible light or thermal imaging) and then locks on for the attack phase. Once locked on, it can follow even a fast-maneuvering target trying to escape. How precisely it can track a target, and how precisely it can be guided to hit a target, moving or stationary, are key factors in its effectiveness. The CH-901 was reportedly in development for several years. They may indicate an advanced and highly-developed guidance system—or just that developers ran into delays.
A drone is useless if its communications can easily be jammed. We will not know how vulnerable the CH-901 is to jamming until it comes up against an advanced opponent. Even then both sides are liable to stay quiet about what they discover.
Despite these uncertainties, the CH-901 matters. While the Chinese are hardly leaders in military aircraft (or armaments generally), they do have a major presence in the field of small electronics. This includes a formidable capacity to churn out vast quantities of sophisticated material at very low cost. This includes small drones, as DJI alone will sell more than million this year. Chinese jets like the new J-20 fighter may never be common or be widely exported, but the CH-901 might be the equivalent of the Vietnam-era Chinese rocket-propelled grenade launchers. These soon appeared in arms bazaars all over the world at bargain prices and were copied by others.
The Chinese military have already bought both versions of the CH-901. Meanwhile the U.S. continues to progress the LMAMS program for portable lethal drones. The Switchblade is one contender, but the program will not select and field a final version until 2017-18 at least. That's a long time in the fast-moving world of small drones.
David Hambling's book is out now.