China's New Surveillance Technology May Expose U.S. Warships

Military vehicles carrying Pterodactyl I unmanned aerial vehicles drive past the Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in Beijing, China, September 3, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Lee

China’s new long endurance solar-powered UAV will form an important component of its developing maritime intelligence system.

A spate of very serious accidents for the U.S. Navy in the Western Pacific has brought forth new procedures for American warships operating in the crowded sea lanes of East Asia. In a sharp break with the past, U.S. Navy ships are now operating with AIS transponders in active mode, at least in high traffic areas. These transponders are mandatory for merchant vessels crisscrossing the world’s oceans and are a major aid to preventing navigation accidents, but navies have resisted this trend for the obvious reason of safeguarding stealth and operational security. The now regular release of data on locations of U.S. Navy ships has occasioned some logical concern, but USN leadership has decided that the safety benefits outweigh any added risks.

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That is likely a wise decision. However, the question of what potential adversaries know about U.S. military force dispositions in the Western Pacific is highly significant and actually has considerable bearing on the Asia-Pacific military balance. Indeed, one of the key variables in evaluating the so-called “anti-access” military strategy of certain major strategic competitors concerns whether the hypothetical opponent has sufficient intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to put long-range weapons onto American military targets, especially when these are ships out at sea. The Chinese PLA has accumulated very substantial firepower in recent years, including lethal missiles like YJ-18, and a wide array of launch platforms, such as H-6K bombers and Yuan-class submarines. Then, there is the much discussed anti-ship ballistic missile, which was unveiled in the 2015 official Chinese military parade. Even with such a store of weaponry, however, more than a few Western strategists have voiced doubts regarding China’s ability to actually find and target American ships during a conflict.

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For that reason, a high priority for strategists looking at the Asia-Pacific military balance now focuses on China’s developing ISR capabilities, especially the ability to locate targets at sea beyond the “first island chain.” We recently highlighted the advent of the world’s largest seaplane into China’s maritime surveillance arsenal. Yet, a plausible case can be made that the most potent of China’s future ISR assets will be unmanned systems.

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One system has occasioned much discussion both in China and among Western strategists as of late: the Rainbow (彩虹) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). A recent article in the Chinese naval magazine Modern Ships (现代舰船 ) explored the issue of whether this new UAV could target U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups and this issue of Dragon Eye will summarize that piece, which notably keys off a report that was earlier circulated by the National Interest during the summer of 2017.

Hinting at the remarkable qualities of this UAV, the subhead of this Chinese article notes that the Rainbow UAV could fly continuously for months and “even for years” (甚至数年). Giving full credit to the original innovators in the United States, this article notes that NASA flew its first solar-powered UAVs during the early 1980s. A number of Chinese aerospace laboratories apparently took up the project in the 1990s and the Eleventh Design Bureau of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation apparently created the Rainbow UAV. Powered by eight propeller engines, this UAV has a giant wingspan in excess of forty-five meters, equivalent to a 737. Somewhat like the spy plane legends of the Cold War, such as the U-2, the Rainbow UAV will generally operate at extremely high altitudes. Indeed, the many advantages of this platform become immediately evident in appraising an unmanned aircraft designed to “fly even higher and even further” (非得更高更远).

In fairness, a rather substantial part of the Chinese article discusses the many possible civilian application for this aviation technology, whether economic or scientific. It is noted that the high-flying, extreme long-endurance UAV can offer most of the services of a satellite, but the “communications capabilities are more robust, the launch apparatus is much simpler and the . . . operating costs are significantly lower, as well.” Some of the civil sector missions that the Rainbow UAV could well take up, include such varied roles as pipeline security, forestry management, agricultural land use inspection and forecasting, as well as earthquake relief and other kinds of disaster response or search-and-rescue surveillance operations. Moreover, the craft seems ideally suited for atmospheric and climate change research. It could also be used for weather sampling.

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