China unveils stealth drone in race to capture global market

Chinese firms face less government restrictions on sales than their US competitors

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 6, 2018, a model of CH-7 HALE Stealth Unmanned Reconnaissance Aircraft is seen on display at the Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai, south China's Guangdong province. China is unleashing stealth drones and pilotless aircraft fitted with AK-47 rifles onto world markets, racing to catch up to US technology and adding to a fleet that has seen combat action in the Middle East. / AFP / WANG Zhao / TO GO WITH China-US-weaponry-aerospace, FOCUS by Ludovic EHRET
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China is unleashing stealth drones and pilotless aircraft fitted with AK-47 rifles onto world markets, racing to catch up to US technology and adding to a fleet that has already seen combat action in the Middle East.

Combat drones were among the jet fighters, missiles and other military hardware shown off this week at Airshow China, the country's biggest aerospace industry exhibition.

A delta-winged stealth drone received much attention, highlighting China's growing production of sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles seeking to compete with the US military's massive fleet.

The CH-7 — a charcoal-grey UAV unveiled at the air show — is the length of a tennis court with a 22-metre wingspan. It can fly at more than 800 kilometres per hour and at an altitude of 13,000 metres.

"We are convinced that with this product clients will quickly contact us," said Shi Wen, chief engineer of the Caihong (Rainbow) series drones at state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC).

The CH-7's maiden flight is slated for late next year.

CASC has clients in about 10 countries, Mr Shi told AFP, while declining to name them.

"Some things remain sensitive," he said.

China's drones are now flying in the Middle East, as Beijing has fewer qualms than the United States when it comes to selling its military UAVs to other nations.

The Iraqi army has used CASC's CH-4 drone to conduct at least 260 strikes against ISIS, Chinese media reported earlier this year.

"The Chinese have produced an enormous range of drones, and this seems to be an area that they expect to make great progress," said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

"The export and deployment of them should enable them to improve on design as they get tested in a real combat environment."

The United States has plenty of lethal drones, but it has restrictions on exporting them out of concern that the technology could be copied or used against its own troops.

Some of these restrictions were lifted in April for US allies, with President Donald Trump's administration citing competition from Chinese "knockoffs", but even a close ally such as Jordan has not been able to buy US drones.

The US rules gave Beijing the opportunity to fill the void and sell its drones to other countries, but China's "competitive" prices also helped, said James Char, an expert on the Chinese military at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

China has exported its armed UAVs to countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Mr Char said.

At the Zhuhai air show, Chinese drone makers are rubbing their hands at the business opportunities.

"Security is a real problem in the Middle East. There's a real need for military drones over there," said Wu Xiaozhen, overseas project director at a company named Ziyan.

At the company's stand, Ms Wu handed out a brochure showing its star product: the Blowfish A2, a 62-centimetre tall helicopter drone with Kevlar armour.

"We can add an AK-47 or a machine gun. Different weapons can be installed, whatever the customer wants," she told AFP.

"Our product is of great quality," she said. "We don't fear competition from the Europeans and the Americans."


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