China’s big new long-endurance twin-engine armed combat drone makes an appearance

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China’s Grand International Air Show in Zhuhai hasn’t even officially started yet, but we already have a preview of what’s to be shown there. A new development is the Chinese J-16D electronic attack jet first seen with jamming modules. Now we get our first full-scale view of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation’s Cai Hong (Rainbow) 6, better known by its designation CH-6. It is a long-endurance twin-engine multirole drone. In the past, we’ve only seen models and low-fidelity renders of the design.

The CH-6 is considered a high altitude, long endurance (HALE) unmanned system designed for intelligence gathering, support and strike roles. It almost looks something like a greatly enlarged CH-5, but its rear configuration is very different from that earlier design. It has a high T-tail configuration, with two jet engines installed atop the tail section side by side. The long middle wings of the drone are also swept a little and the whole thing sits on a high landing gear. The plane also has a conspicuous chine-line edge that wraps around its ellipse-shaped fuselage.

According to China-Arms.com, which claims to have the basic information that will be displayed on the CH-6 at the airshow, its stats include:

The parameters of the CH-6 UAV include a maximum take-off weight of 7.8 tons, a maximum load capacity of 300 kg (reconnaissance type) or 2 tons (reconnaissance-attack type), a fuel capacity of 3.42 tons (reconnaissance type) or 1.72 tons (reconnaissance-attack type), overall length 15 meters, wingspan 20.5 meters, height 5 meters, maximum level flight speed 800 km/h, cruising speed from 500 km/h to 700 km/h, cruising altitude of 10 km, ceiling of 12 km, a maximum autonomy of 20 hours (reconnaissance type) or 8 hours (reconnaissance-attack type), a maximum range of 12,000 km (reconnaissance type) or 4,500 km (reconnaissance-attack type), a maximum rate of climb of 20 m/s, and an (apparent) range of 300 km.

The CH-6 appears to be situated in a capability gap between its medium-altitude, medium-endurance and non-stealth unmanned combat aircraft brethren – as well as China’s long-endurance, medium-altitude and propeller-driven surveillance types. – and more advanced – Long endurance altitude, intelligence gathering and sensor jet drones. The fact that it will be capable of being armed from the start is a clear indication that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is looking to push its unmanned kinetic capabilities further than is currently possible.

The aircraft’s jet speed will favorably impact transit times to patrol or target areas and maximize its endurance once there. Two engines would also increase reliability, which could be essential given the distances involved in operating an aircraft such as this and the less developed state of Chinese jet engine technology. In fact, the most similar Chinese unmanned aircraft we know to the CH-6 is probably cloud shadow. It is a unique jet engine design that also has much in common with previous Chinese propeller-driven combat drone designs, but is smaller and lighter than the CH-6. Both aircraft can accomplish surveillance and kinetic missions, but the CH-6 would likely be even better suited to the former due to its size and weight, allowing multiple sensor systems – and larger ones at that – to be transported over long distances and at higher levels. altitudes.

As far as the United States is concerned, probably the closest thing to the CH-6 is General Atomics’ Avenger, although the CH-6 places less emphasis on low observability in its design and seems capable of operations at higher altitude for certain types of missions. The Avenger could probably be better ranked somewhere between the CH-6 and Cloud Shadow, in some respects. Also, the CH-6 is a simpler overall design.

That’s a big deal, because it could provide China with a high-altitude, long-endurance “everyday” platform that isn’t of a very sensitive or expensive nature to acquire and operate. It can be a rig that potentially packs a kinetic punch, but can also carry larger sensors and other payloads if needed, all with the reliability of a twin-jet engine. . Once again, this would bridge the unmanned flying “sensor truck” gap that exists between aircraft like the more advanced jet-powered Soar Dragon and the less capable propeller-powered TB-001. Being far from exquisite, especially compared to some of the stealth unmanned aircraft China is currently pursuing, this means the CH-6 can also be bought, or even lost, in large numbers.

With that in mind, the CH-6 may not be sexy or cutting-edge, but it could prove hugely important to the long-term ambitions of the PLA.

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