The Sharp Sword UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), China's stealthy attack
drone, just won second place in the National Science and Technology
Advancement Prizes. Considering the secrecy surrounding stealth drones
to come out of China—there are relatively few photos of the Sharp Sword
available, particularly as opposed to, say, the J-20 fighter—the Sharp
Sword's victory is pretty noteworthy. The drone, known as "Lijian" in
Mandarin Chinese, is being paraded as a huge win for Chinese aviation
technology. And it is.
33-foot-long Sharp Sword craft has a wingspan of roughly 46 feet, and
uses a non-afterburning WS-13 turbofan engine with serpentine inlet to
mask it from enemy radar.
Sharp Sword first flew in November 2013, and has a similar appearance to a small B-2 flying wing bomber and the American X-47B.
The Sharp Sword is the first non-NATO stealthy unmanned combat aerial
vehicle (UCAV). Built by Aviation Industry Corporation of China, with
much of the work done by the Hongdu Aviation Industry Group, the Sharp
Sword first flew in November 2013. Looking a bit like a mini-B-2 flying
wing bomber, the UCAV has two internal bomb bays and a likely payload of
about 4,400 pounds. Its engine is a non-afterburning WS-13 turbofan
engine, with inlet serpentine to hide the engine from enemy radars (the
first Sharp Sword does not use a stealthy nozzle due to its technology
demonstrator status). It has a length of about 33 feet, and a wingspan
of about 46 feet.
Other similar foreign systems include the American X-47B, the British
Taranis, and the French Neuron. Stealthy UCAVs have a number of
advantages over their manned counterparts: they can fit the same
internal payload onto a smaller airframe, and have much longer ranges,
in addition to the typical advantages of unmanned aerial vehicles, like
longer flight times.
Reporting from the Chinese Internet suggests that a second, even
stealthier Sharp Sword began flying last year (with a stealthy engine).
If flight testing with the prototypes goes as well as the initial flight
tests did with the first airframe, the Sharp Sword could enter service
as early as 2019-2020.
Initially, it's believed that the Sharp Sword will be used for
reconnaissance in areas with dense air defense networks, as well as
tailing foreign warships. As the Chinese develops a familiarity with the
Sharp Sword, it could be used for combat operations as a "first through
the door" weapon against highly defended, high-value targets, as well
as an aerial tanker for other drones and carrier aircraft (akin to plans
for the U.S. MQ-25). There is even the possibility of carrier version
for China's planned next generation of catapult equipped aircraft
Eventually, advances in distributed systems and artificial
intelligence could help the Sharp Sword be a robotic wingman to manned
aircraft in an unmanned/manned operational concept. It could even take
on autonomous missions of its own.
They also have a longer range.
craft could one day be used to for ‘first through the door’ combat
missions against high-value targets, or act as an aerial tanker for
other craft, according to Popular Science.
The Future of Unmanned Warfare. Popular Science
Stealthy flying wing UCAVs, like the Sharp Sword, are more
survivable (by virtual of stealth) than traditional UAVs like the
Predator, and have more onboard room for mission avionics, plus
computers for artificial intelligence.