With a number of lethal new Chinese stealth aircraft currently under development, including the H-20 strategic bomber, J-31 fighter and Star Shadow drone, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is set to induct a highly sophisticated long range attack drone into active service – the Sharp Sword. The platform was designed with a flying wing body, similar to that of the U.S. B-2 Spirit bomber and RQ-170 recon drone and maximises range and payload to allow it to function as a long range strike platform. The Sharp Sword is set to serve as an unmanned bomber in all but name, and has been designed to penetrate enemy air defences for strike and interdiction roles.
With an Iranian variant of the U.S. RQ-170 having recently proven all but invulnerable to the latest American made air defences during an incursion into Israeli airspace, the more sophisticated Sharp Sword is set to be significantly more survivable still and its larger airframe and intended role indicate it may well be designed to operate at extreme altitudes. The drone won second place in the country’s National Science and Technology Advancement competition, and is set to make use of cutting edge precision guided munitions. The aircraft has two bomb bays carrying an estimated 2 tons of ordnance, compared to the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s 2.5 tons, and is the first stealth drone to enter service outside the Western bloc and Iran.
China’s Stealth Sword’s final role remains unclear, and whether it will be developed for a maritime strike role to engage enemy warships and protect China’s territorial waters remains to be seen. Deployment of the platform from island military outposts in the South China Sea, carrying Beijing’s latest stealthy anti ship cruise missiles, could well be a lethal combination to strengthen an already potent defence network in the region. Striking U.S. military facilities in Okinawa, South Korea and Afghanistan during a potential war remains another potential role for the advanced UAV. The platform could also be deployed from China’s future aircraft carriers, which equipped with electromagnetic catapults could prove invaluable as launch platforms for the Sharp Sword. Potential for the drone to be equipped with a basic combat AI has also been considered.
Built by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, with much assistance from the Hongdu Aviation Industry Group, the Sharp Sword saw its first flight in November 2013. This was notably two years after Iran’s downing of the RQ-170, and the platforms’ close resemblance has led to some speculation that Tehran could have provided Beijing with the American drone after successfully hijacking and landing the cutting edge platform. China in turn could have assisted Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in developing an indigenous variant of the UAV, which was considered well beyond Iran’s capabilities at the time. The Sharp Sword has a length of approximately 10 meters and a wingspan of 14, and makes use of a non afterburning WS-13 turbofan engine with serpentine inlet to improve its radar evading capabilities. Whether like the Sky Shadow the UAV will be marketed for export, or whether the Sharp Sword will like the J-20, H-20 and a number of other recently inducted highly sensitive defence products be reserved for Beijing’s own defence needs, remains to be seen.