Beijing is heavily investing into the development of longer-range UAVs.
Last week, new pictures emerged on Chinese websites of the Project 973 or Shen Diao (“Divine Eagle”) prototype, perhaps the world’s largest twin fuselage drone – and a new formidable long-range strike weapon in the arsenal of the People’s Liberation Army.
Developed by China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation and influenced by the Russian Sukhoi S-62 twin-fuselage high-altitude, long-endurance UAV (some media reports indicate that China stole key design features from Russia), the Divine Eagle is Beijing’s latest addition to its burgeoning anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.
The UAV prototype is a high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) multi-mission platform with both long-range surveillance as well as strike capabilities and “has been the subject of speculative conceptual drawings since 2012,” according to IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. It boasts anti-stealth capabilities, a special purpose radar and reportedly first flew in February 2015.
According to Popular Science magazine, the Divine Eagle is designed to carry multiple Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, of the AMTI, SAR and GMTI varieties as well as Airborne Moving Target Indicators (AMTI) that are used to track airborne targets, like enemy fighters and cruise missiles.
Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) radars could be used for identifying and tracking large groups of vessels such as an aircraft carrier strike force. Other radars like the “F-22 killer” JY-26 “have raised concerns in the American military that they could track stealth aircraft like the F-35 fighter and B-2 bomber at long ranges,” Popular Science magazine reports.
However, “compared to the initial concept art and drawings available in February, the latest Divine Eagle iteration is less stealthy, having two satellite communications domes, completely vertical tails and an exposed engine intake,” the magazine additionally notes.
Judging from the images, the Divine Eagle prototype appears to be larger than the U.S Air Force’s Global Hawk long-range surveillance drone and consequently could be equipped to “carry large missiles for satellite launching, anti-satellite and anti-ship missions,” elaborates the Washington Free Beacon.
The article also quotes, Rick Fisher, an expert on Chinese military capabilities, who states that “China’s construction of large long-range Global Hawk-sized unmanned aircraft will greatly assist its goal of consolidating control over the western Pacific (…)These large UAVs will act as persistent satellites able to target missiles and other tactical platforms well beyond the first island chain.”
The capacity to strike targets at a long distance was also the principal concern of another analyst.
“The deployment of high-altitude, long endurance UAVs equipped with advanced sensors would enhance the PLA’s ability to strike U.S. bases and naval assets in the region, as well as those of its allies and partners,” says Mark Stokes, a former Pentagon official.
Overall, the new UAV, once deployed, will make it harder for the United States and its allies to operate undetected close to Chinese shores, Popular Science magazine emphasizes:
Using the Divine Eagle as a picket, the Chinese air force could quickly intercept stealthy enemy aircraft, missiles and ships well before they come in range of the Mainland. Flying high, the Divine Eagle could also detect anti-ship missile trucks and air defenses on land, in preparation for offensive Chinese action.
China’s drone program appears to be largely founded upon reverse engineering of foreign technologies. Some experts caution that Chinese UAVs will primarily be deployed locally, requiring less sophisticated technology as well as less resources to operate them than U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles. The Divine Eagle prototype, however, could become the exception. By Franz-Stefan Gady for The Diplomat