Key point: China has many modern weapon systems such as drones and hypersonic missiles. America is keeping a close eye on Beijing's continued modernization.
On October 1, 2019 the People’s Republic of China’s celebrated the seventieth anniversary of its official founding after Mao Zedong consolidated the Chinese Communist Party’s control over mainland China.
This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
For the occasion, Beijing paraded cutting-edge military systems on Tiananmen Square deemed ready to unveil before audiences both domestic and international.
Formerly reliant on reverse-engineered Soviet weapons from the 1950s, China has leveraged forty years of sustained economic growth to not only develop new tanks, jet fighters and aircraft carriers, but has invested heavily in combat drones, stealth technology, and long-range guided missiles.
By-now familiar weapons on display included Wing Loong-II combat drones used extensively in combat in Libya, the Type 15 light tank intended for operations on the Tibetan Plateau, and DF-26 missiles with enough range to strike Guam and guidance systems designed to enable targeting of moving aircraft carriers.
But the parade also showcased several advanced new weapons, including several types which so far have no equivalent in service elsewhere on the planet. Let’s look at six systems in particular that received the red carpet treatment in the recent parade.
DF-17 Hypersonic Missiles:
The long, weirdly flat-looking missiles mounted on trucks are DF-17 ballistic missiles designed to deploy a triangular DF-Z hypersonic glide vehicle. Hypersonic weapons travel five to ten times the speed of sound—that equates to one to two miles per second—but unlike similarly speedy long-range ballistic missiles, do so on a much flatter trajectory which makes them harder to detect and intercepts—leaving enemies with only a few minutes to react.
Moreover, unlike older ballistic missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles are maneuverable, meaning they could potentially evade anti-ballistic missile interceptors like the THAADs and SM-3s used to protect U.S. ships and bases in East Asia.
The DF-17 missile is estimated to have a range of around 1,200 miles and its re-entry vehicle, which can carry both conventional or nuclear warheads, can supposedly be re-targeted mid-flight.
HSU-001 Drone Submarine:
China is also the first country to openly deploy a large-displacement unmanned underwater vehicle (LDUUV)—basically a fully-robotic submarine capable of long-range missions.
Naval warfare theorist expect that unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) will eventually serve alongside manned submarines in undersea warfare. But so far only small, short-range UUVs have seen much use, particularly to recover objects form the sea floor.
Because it’s difficult to maintain a drone command link to an undersea vehicle, a large, long-range UUV (LDUUV) would have to be fully autonomous—that is, capable of carrying out its mission without any human input.
China’s LDUUV design doesn’t appear to have any torpedo tubes and is therefore presumably an underwater surveillance platform. Two sensor masts are visible, as well as likely a large sonar aperture behind its flat nose. The HSU-001 could prove highly useful for long-endurance missions monitoring the movements of U.S. Navy submarines and surface warships—data which could be periodically transmitted back to the mainland via satellite antenna while near the surface.
DR-8 Spy Drone
The DR-8 is a blade-like supersonic spy drone designed to soar over the Pacific ocean at speeds ranging between three and five times the speed of sound using a mysterious propulsion system.
As discussed in this earlier piece by David Axe, the DR-8 appears may have been influenced by the American high-speed D-21 spy drone, several of which were recovered after unsuccessful spy missions.
According to the South China Morning Post, the DR-8 is intended to provide post-strike damage-assessment of attacks by truck-borne DF-21D and DF-26B ‘carrier killing’ missiles, which can theoretically strike moving ships from over one or two thousand miles away from the Chinese mainland.
“Sharp Sword” Stealth Combat Drone
Beijing also revealed its manta-shaped Hongdu GJ-11 Lijian (“Sharp Sword”) stealth Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV). These would not only be difficult to detect with radar but can also carry over two tons of laser-guided bombs or missiles in two internal weapons bays.
One of a half-dozen designs spawned from the AVIC 601-S stealth drone research program, Sharp Sword made its first flight in 2013—making it the first stealth UCAV to have been developed by a non-NATO country, though in 2018 Russia showcased its own stealth UCAV.
A reconnaissance variant of the GJ-11 will reportedly debut in service on Chinese Type 001A aircraft carriers, used for surveillance and reconnaissance missions and gathering targeting data for missile strikes. However, its weapon could allow it to be used for penetrating strikes against heavily defended targets.
H-6N Long-Range Bomber
The PLA Air Force and Navy both operate the H-6 long-range strategic jet bomber, a domestic copy of the Soviet Tu-16 ‘Badger’. Like the U.S. B-52, the H-6 can’t go anywhere near enemy fighters or air-defense missiles but can safely truck along very long-range missiles.
Photos of the new H-6N model reveal two key characteristics. First, it has an in-flight refueling probe which should extend the bomber’s range to 3,700 miles.
While early H-6s carried nuclear gravity bombs, China does not currently maintain any air-deployed nuclear weapons. If H-6Ns are able to carry nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, however, Beijing did not see fit to reveal that in its 2019 parade.
Hunting Eagle Gyrocopters
One of the more bizarre items trucked along in the parade were two-seat Shaanxi Baoji ‘Hunting Eagle’ gyrocopters.
Gyrocopters, or auto-gyros, resemble helicopters, but their top rotors are unpowered. Instead, a horizontal “pusher” engine propels them forward, generating airflow which automatically turns the top rotor for an upwards lift. Gyrocopters are lighter, smaller and cheaper than helicopters and can land in tighter spaces—but they’re also slower, cannot take off vertically and require skill to pilot safely. You can see a Hunting Eagle in flight here.
Why is the PLA showcasing something usually considered a light recreational vehicle? According to Kyle Mizokami at Popular Mechanics, the Hunting Eagle will be used for “search and rescue, border control, reconnaissance, anti-riot, and other roles. It will also be used to self-deploy Chinese special forces on missions into enemy territory.”
A caveat, however, is that the Hunting Eagle, which also comes in a three-seat version, would be constrained by short range.
So China’s gyrocopter-riding commandoes may not constitute a world-ending superweapon, but they are kind of neat.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared in October 2019.