Chinese Wing Loong UAVs Growing Big

Sub Title : Militaries around the world are heavily investing in unmanned aerial vehicle technologies

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 2 May – Jun 2021

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 36

Category : Military Technology

: July 1, 2021

Militaries around the world are heavily investing in unmanned aerial vehicle technologies and drone warfare. These technologies are leading the evolution in airpower. Accordingly,  China  is concentrating on high end military UAVs, many of which have already been exported around the globe. One system that is the flagship is the Wing Loong series of UAVs and Combat UAVS (UCAV)

India’s military face-off with China in Eastern Ladakh once again brought focus on military capabilities between the two major nations. China’s major focus has been on aerospace power. Among the many components, one area where China is managing to race ahead at global scales is unmanned systems. They are already dominating the small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) used by hobbyists. As the future in military aviation is also turning unmanned, they are now concentrating on high end military UAVs, many of which they have already exported around the globe. One system that is the flagship is the Wing Loong series of UAVs and Combat UAVS (UCAV).

The Chengdu Pterodactyl 1, also known as Wing Loong, is a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) UAV, developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG) of China. Designed for surveillance and aerial reconnaissance platform, the Pterodactyl I is capable of being fitted with air-to-surface weapons for use in an UCAV role.

The Wing Loong had its first flight in 2009 and joined the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in 2011. It is also operated by the Royal Saudi Air Force, Egyptian Air Force, United Arab Emirates Air Force, and Pakistan Air Force (PAF), and few others.

Basic Design

The Pterodactyl 1 bears a distinct similarity in appearance to the Predator/Reaper family of drones developed by the United States. The drone is capable of being fitted with a variety of sensors, including a forward looking infrared (FLIR) turret and synthetic aperture radar (SAR). In addition, the aircraft is capable of carrying weapons. The Pterodactyl can carry the BA-7 air-to-ground missile, YZ-212 laser-guided bomb, YZ-102A anti-personnel bomb and 50-kilogram LS-6 miniature guided bomb.

Wing Loong Variants

There are six known variants of Wing Loong. Pterosaur 1, the first of the Wing Loong series, flew its maiden flight in October 2007, and the payload evaluation flight was completed a year later in October 2008. This first model lacked the bulge at the nose tip of the fuselage due to the lack of a satellite antenna. The lack of satellite antenna reduced cost and restricted the maximum control range to around 200 km. This one is no more marketed.

Pterodactyl 1 was the second model of the Wing Loong series. This had the bulge at the nose tip of the fuselage to house a satellite antenna, and this is the version most widely publicized and actively marketed as a surveillance platform. The United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan were reported to be the first two foreign customers of Pterodactyl 1.

Sky Saker is a derivative of Wing Loong developed by China North Industries Group Corporation Limited (NORINCO) mainly intended for export. Sky Saker carries both a miniature synthetic aperture radar and an electro-optical pod to perform reconnaissance in both the visible light and radar spectra. Chinese propaganda claims that it has both scout and strike capabilities at the same time, but the same is not true. Information released by NORINCO itself in 2015 said that  the UAV can employ only a single capability at a time. When the UAV carries the reconnaissance payload, no weaponry is carried. Similarly, when weaponry is carried, the reconnaissance payload is absent. This is due to total payload carrying limitations.

WJ-1 is the first land-attack version, which is a weapon platform without the reconnaissance pod under the chin. The designation WJ stands for Wu-Zhuang Wu-Ren-Ji meaning armed UAV. WJ-1 UAV made its public debut in November 2014 at the 10th Zhuhai Airshow along with the GJ-1.

GJ-1 is another land-attack version of Pterodactyl I that combines the capabilities of both Pterodactyl I and WJ-1 so that it can identify and engage targets on its own. GJ-1 can be distinguished from both Pterodactyl I and WJ-1 in that GJ-1 have both the reconnaissance/targeting pod under the chin as well as hard-points to carry weapons. The designation GJ stands for Gong-Ji Wu-Ren-Ji meaning “attack UAV.”

Wing Loong ID, is the upgraded variant of the Wing Loong I, with improved aerodynamics and engine enabling greater take-off weight, service ceiling, and endurance. Other upgrades include both internal and external stores, as well as communications equipment. The variant was launched in 2018 with Egypt being the first buyer of 32 systems. The variant achieved its first flight on 23 December 2018.

Wing Loong II is an upgraded variant of the Wing Loong, with provisions for up to twelve air-to-surface missiles. It officially entered service with the PLAAF in November 2018. GJ-2 is the Chinese military version of Wing Loong II, in service as of 2019.

Operational Area Employment

Saudi Arabia purchased Wing Loong UCAV in May 2014. Ever since over 100 have already been exported to many customers. China has sold the Wing Loong to several countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Nigeria, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, at an estimated $1 million per unit.

In March 2017, the Egyptian Air Force launched a number of airstrikes in North Sinai’s cities of El Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zuweid, as part of the operations conducted by the Egyptian Armed Forces against militants. Most of the strikes, which targeted logistics and stationing points and moving vehicles, were carried out by Wing Loong UCAVs killing over 18 militants.

On 26 Dec 2016, a Wing Loong UCAV operated by the Saudi led Coalition was shot down by Houthi forces in Yemen. In April 2018 they were used in Yemen by the Saudi led Operation “Decisive Storm” in successfully killing Saleh Ali al-Sammad, a senior Houthi leader by Wing Loong UCAV. On 19 April 2019, Houthi rebels published a video of the downing and of the crash site of a Wing Loong UCAV acting for Saudi-led intervention over Saada district. It was probably shot down with an R-73 or R-27T missile. On 01 Dec 2019, Houthi forces reported shooting down a Wing Loong drone over Yemen. Another Wing Loong was reported shot down ten days later.

On 03 Aug 2019, Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) forces announced the shooting down of a drone belonging to rival Libyan National Army (LNA) forces. These forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar were already known to extensively deploy Chinese-made Wing Loong drones supplied by the United Arab Emirates for the Civil War conflict against the GNA. The GNA also deployed Turkish drones in its war after receiving 12 Bayraktar TB2s in two batches between May and July 2019. At least half of them have been destroyed during LNA airstrikes using Wing Loong IIs, the second batch delivered in July was to replace the losses of the first. Another Wing Loong I drone was reported shot down by GNA air defences on 26 May 2020.

The UAE used Wing Loong II drones to fire the Chinese Blue Arrow 7 missile at a military academy in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in Jan 2020, killing 26 unarmed cadets. The drone was operated from Libya’s Al-Khadim air base which has been under the control of the UAE. As of June 2020, a total of 6 Wing Loong II have been reported shot down or lost in Libya, all operated by the Libyan National Army (LNA). Including one allegedly shot down by a laser, if this was true then it was the first time in history that a laser weapon shot down a combat vehicle.

Wing Loong Operators

Nearly 60 Wing Loong are in service with the PLAAF. Numbers are increasing further.  Egypt inducted them in 2016. The UAVs have already seen combat service with Egypt’s Task Force 777, operating against ‘Wilayet Sinai’, the local arm of so-called Islamic State (IS). Wing Loong UAVs were used to search for smuggling tunnels used by IS between Gaza and Sinai and, in March 2017, the Egyptian Air Force used them to launch a number of airstrikes against militants in north Sinai, in the cities of El Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zuweid. In November 2018, it was announced that Egypt would purchase 32 new Wing Loong 1D UAVs. The 1D variant has increased wingspan – up from 14 meters to 17.8 metres – with a higher maximum take-off weight, and with payload doubled to 400kg. In June 2016, the Kazakhstan Air Defence Forces received two Wing-Loong UAVs. Morocco reportedly received a few Wing Loong UAVs as a gift from UAE in 2020. It is expected to complete a new deal with China for the purchase of Wing Loong UAVs. Four Wing Loong II combat drones arrived in Nigeria in 2020 and would be used for ongoing counter-insurgency and anti-banditry operations. The country had concluded the purchase of eight armed UAVs from China. The remaining four UAVs are expected to arrive before the end of 2021.

In 2018, China and Pakistan signed an agreement to co-produce 48 strike-capable Wing Loong II drones. China has also delivered five CH-4 UAVs to Pakistan. It is uncertain which of the two, the CH-4A or CH-4B was ordered by Pakistan. If the CH-4B is used, the Pakistan Army will acquire another armed drone for unmanned combat operations (in addition to its Burraq series). In 2014, Saudi Arabia purchased two Chinese CH-4s, although these may well be the unarmed ‘A’ variant rather than the armed ‘B’, and five larger and more heavily armed Wing Loong IIs. In terms of imports, therefore, the Kingdom has purchased remarkably few armed UAVs in comparison to its huge purchases of fast jets and other high-end military equipment. Two Saudi Arabian manufacturers have started co-producing a Turkish-made medium-altitude, long-endurance drone. The co-production program involves building a batch of 40 Karayel-SU UAVs between 2021 and 2025. The Turkish drone will be renamed as Haboob in Saudi Arabia. United Arab Emirates ordered Wing Loong in 2011 and became the launch customer for Wing Loong II in 2017. The UAE has had Chinese Wing Loong I drones since 2016 and started receiving its purchases of the upgraded and deadlier Wing Loong II in early 2018. Interestingly, on 10 November 2020 the U.S. State Department approved the sale of up to 50 F-35As and 18 MQ-9B Reaper drones to the UAE. The Wing Loong drones are in active operations in Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Serbia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Technical Specifications Wing Loong 1

Wing Loong 1 is 9.05 m (29 ft 8 in) long and has a wingspan of 14 m (45 ft 11 in), and a height of 2.77 m (9 ft 1 in). It weighs 1,100 kg. It is powered by one Rotax 914 turbocharged, 75 kW (100 shp) engine with a three-blade propeller. The avionics weight limit is 100 kilograms. The maximum speed is 280 km/h, the range is 4,000 km, and endurance is 20 hours. The service ceiling is 5,000 m (16,000 ft). Wing Loong 1 can carry 200 kilograms of air-to-surface weapons bombs, or missiles.

Wing Loong II Tech Specs

Wing Loong II (GJ-2) is a much larger UAV that is distinguished by the lack of winglets on its wings. It has a slender fuselage, V-tail, and ventral fin. The aircraft features retractable landing gear. Each wing has three hard-points under the wings with the capability of carrying bombs, rockets, or air-to-surface missiles. It is 11 m (36 ft 1 in) long and has a wingspan of 20.5 m (67 ft 3 in), and a height of 4.1 m (13 ft 5 in). The max take-off weight is 4,200 kg. It has a maximum speed of 370 km/h, an endurance of 32 hours, and a service ceiling of 9,900 m (32,500 ft). Avionics include air-to-ground radars, a GPS communication system, and electro-optical pod with daylight and infrared cameras and sensors, and a satellite link. It can carry a variety of bombs and missiles. It has provisions for up to twelve air-to-surface missiles. These officially entered service with the PLAAF in November 2018.

Future is Unmanned

Clearly, the future is unmanned. Till long the manufacture of the unmanned system was dominated by the USA, and Israel. Both these countries have actually used them extensively in combat operations in the Middle East. The USA first used them in Vietnam, later used them extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. The UAVs have been used in combat in Houthi–Saudi Arabian conflict, in the Libyan Civil War, and more recently in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. UAVs are being used by both sides on the India-Pakistan border and Line of Control, and by India and China on the Line of Actual Control for surveillance. UAVs are also being used the world over for policing and logistics functions, among many other things. Indian armed forces did induct indigenous Lakshya and Nishant systems. But mostly have Israeli Heron and Searcher II UAVs and also Harpy and Harop UCAVs. Recently India has taken the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAVs on lease, these are being operated by Indian Navy. Discussions are ongoing to procure 30 more, 10 each for the three armed forces. India too has an ambitious program for a cross-section of surveillance and combat UAVs. These are being developed by DRDO labs and also by the private sector. Rustam and stealth “Ghatak” are the main. These may still take a few years to induct. Elbit of Israel and India’s Adani Group is having a joint-venture in Hyderabad and are manufacturing Hermes 900 (MALE) and the Hermes 450 in India. Both these UAVs are operated by many users across the world. Indian Private sector otherwise is concentrating mostly on small UAVs. Many other countries are already making UAVs. Turkey has been very successful in making the “Bayraktar” tactical UAVs which have been already used in conflicts and are finding many customers. Pakistan is building UAVs with Chinese technology and help. UAVs are a low-hanging fruit with great operational role and export potential. This is also the starting point for much larger systems including unmanned fighters and bombers. India must start building these in large numbers, lest we get left behind.