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The Drone Index: CASC CH-5

November 23, 2016


This year’s Airshow China, also known as the Zhuhai Air Show, distinguished itself for overt martial displays that seemed to mix Farnborough with Eurosatory. Not only were China’s latest fighter jets, including the fifth-generation J-20, soaring above the venue but an inordinate amount of hardware from state-owned defense contractors outshone the civilian exhibitors for almost a week in sun-drenched Guangdong.

The Zhuhai Air Show, by the way, is a venue for international (civilian) aerospace firms wanting to do business in China.

Just as Norinco and Poly Technologies indulged their products with vehicles either brooding in static display or running obstacle courses, another class of weapon systems were debuted with gravitas fit for their roles. These were armed long-range UAVs that, judging by their appearances, could make a difference on the world stage sooner rather than later.

China’s largest aerospace firm AVIC debuted two of the most lethal drones ever shown in a public venue: the Wing Loong II and the sinister Cloud Shadow. The latter is a rare jet-powered model similar to the General Atomics Predator C Avenger, albeit endowed with at least a dozen hardpoints for various munitions.

Another rock star at Zhuhai was the CH-5 from China Aerospace and Technology Corporation (CASC). This particular model is an upcoming heavyweight with characteristics that surpass its American rival the General Atomics Gray Eagle. As a matter of fact, if the CH-5 ever becomes available for export, it could prove one of the deadliest ground attack UAVs to date.

The CH-5 is meant to eclipse the CH-4, an export model that’s reportedly enjoyed strong demand in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The CH-4, which resembles the MQ-9 Reaper, has seen combat in Iraq. Its client list is kept ambiguous but Egypt, the UAE, and Uzbekistan are alleged to have acquired some as well.

But CASC’s CH-5 could change the rules of close air support. According to IHS Janes its performance characteristics include an optional heavy-fuel or gasoline turbopropeller engine. Its maximum speed is beyond 300 kilometers per hour with endurance reaching 60 hours at altitudes of 30,000 feet.

As impressive as they seem such figures haven’t been corroborated anywhere else. As an export model the CH-5 may still be a middle-of-the-road close air support asset for armies on a budget. What can’t be dismissed are the weapons it carries. With three hardpoints on either side of its 21 meter wingspan the CH-5 can bombard targets with missiles, rockets, and dumb bombs.

But during Zhuhai CASC showed off the CH-5 armed with a selection (16 in total) of lightweight air-to-ground missiles; types suited for killing terrorists. The world remains unsure what kind of drone power China intends to become. Like the US it could execute vendettas in the far abroad against elusive threats. Or it might remain content supplying eager clients with the unmanned weapons they need. Perhaps Beijing will fulfill both these roles.

An unsettling possibility is when the PLA manages to integrate their drone fleet as a medium altitude umbrella for mechanized forces in a future conflict–striking near and far so that tanks and APCs won’t be bothered by hostile pockets of the enemy.