China has launched and now flown a new large, anti-ship missile firing reconnaissance drone reportedly able to perform air-to-air precision strikes, stand-off ground attack and even anti-radiation attacks.
“The WJ-700 unmanned aircraft is characterized by its large payload and ability to launch large munitions from outside hostile anti-aircraft fire coverage zone,” the Chinese government-backed Global Times reports.
The new Chinese drone, perhaps not by accident, looks a lot like the U.S. Reaper drone which has itself been massively expanding its weapons envelope to incorporate new air-to-air weapons such as the AIM-9X and more precision-guided air-dropped bombs as well. The combat-tested Reaper has received new mission-extending added fuel tanks, a universal weapons interface with common technical standards to accommodate new weapons and a range of new armaments as Air Force developers continue to envision an expanded, longer-term operational role for the non-stealthy drone.
However, despite its many advances, even the Reaper does not at the moment operate with an ability to fire something as large as an anti-ship missile. A B1-B bomber, for example, or a larger fighter jet such as an F/A-18 are needed to fire something like a LRASM (Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile) guided anti-ship missile. And the U.S. Global Hawk and Triton drones, themselves large surveillance platforms, are not armed.
So, does this mean that the Chinese, who may very well have simply performed their often-realized technique of simply copying or stealing design specs of important U.S. platforms, advanced the curve in a direction not yet achieved by Washington? Is there an unmanned U.S. system currently able to fire a cruise missile? Certainly stealth bombers and heavy aircraft such as the B-52 fire cruise missiles such as the existing Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). In addition, the Air Force has plans for its emerging, nuclear-capable Long Range Standoff weapon slated to fire from the B-21. Yet is there a U.S. drone capable of firing an anti-ship missile?
Firing anti-ship missiles at high altitudes and longer-stand-off ranges from drones would introduce tactical advantages in several key respects, as it would give unmanned systems the ability to cause much larger amounts of damage in a single strike, target larger platforms such as surface warships and attack with certain weapons from hundreds of miles away. The air-launched LRASM, for example, can travel at least 200 nautical miles to a target.
The actual weapons-firing, payload, sensor or technological specifics of the new Chinese drone might not simply be known, yet the prospect of a larger drone platform such as this able to fire anti-ship missiles presents interesting questions, and even possible dilemmas.
As an unmanned system, a cruise missile-armed drone could operate in extremely high threat environments, and therefore engage in operations or attacks while under enemy fire without placing pilots at risk. Drones can also often perform high-endurance, high-altitude, longer-dwell missions than manned aircraft, as they do not need to return a human pilot following a certain mission timeframe. Even larger drones might also, for example, operate with better fuel efficiency than manned platforms and therefore have more loiter time on target.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.