China has become only the third nation to have developed at least a flying prototype of a stealth drone if recent reports of the impending test flights of the “Lijan”(Sharp Sword) are true.
The Lijan, developed jointly by China’s Hongdu Aviation Industry and Shenyang Aviation, completed taxi tests in December at an undisclosed airfield in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, according to China Aviation News.
The only other stealth drones known to be in existence are the US X-47B built by Northrop Grumman and the French-built Dassault nEUROn. Other nations known to be pursuing development of stealth drones include Russia, Britain. Russia, Sweden, Israel, Italy and Iran.
China’s Lijian program was launched in 2009 to develop a stealth drone to be deplyed by the PLA Air Force and Navy for combat missions as well as tracking and reconnaissance. The successful completion of ground testing of the Lijan on December 13 has set the stage for flight testing. The Lijan is said to have a delta-wing shape similar to the X-47B which was launched from a carrier-deck catapult for the first time last November 29. Without the need to carry systems and supplies to sustain human pilots on long missions, drones are capable of achieving far greater effective ranges.
China has already demonstrated the J-20 stealth fighter and is known to be at work on a smaller stealth fighter designated the J-31 said to be designed to operate from aircraft carriers. However, an essential component of a unmanned stealth program is a satellite navigation network. China’s Beidu system, which now provides full regional coverage in Asia and the western Pacific, was opened to international service in December.
A stealth drone capability is deemed to be a key component of the US naval strategy for the western Pacific. The Pentagon is planning to deploy a fleet of carrier-launched stealth jet drones for long-range reconnaissance and strike missions in the region by the early 2020s. Stealth drones would give the US an effective means for penetrating the naval defenses China is building up in an effort to push the US fleet back away from the Chinese mainland.