By Kartik Bommakanti
The shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon in February 2023 on the coast of South Carolina by a fighter jet of the United States Air Force (USAF) heralded a new turn in China’s intelligence collection methods, although US intelligence did conclude that the Chinese balloon did not gather any vital intelligence on military installations across the continental or mainland United States (US).
Nevertheless, spy balloons, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as well as a whole range of aerostat technologies are a part of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Reconnaissance Strike Complex (RSC). The RSC’s objective requires that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), “Find the enemy, hit the enemy, and kill the enemy.”
The PRC’s reconnaissance strike complex encompasses a whole range of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), Communications Intelligence (COMINT) and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) capabilities covering space-borne, air-borne, and ground-based Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). Near Space Flight Vehicles (NSFV) or Near Space Technologies (NST) are growing in considerable importance, particularly for the Chinese and generally the world over. In a conventional war against Beijing’s adversaries, NST will help battlefield situational awareness, improve communications between dispersed combat forces, improve sensor-to-shooter capabilities, and enable better decision-making by commanders in the field.
Beijing’s investment in NSFV is unsurprising given the range of military challenges confronting the country, which ironically, the PRC has invited through its aggressive conduct whether against India, Taiwan, the Philippines or the US. The development, integration, and operationalisation of airborne NSTs are consistent with the PLA’s informatisation strategy, which involves the domination of cyber, space, and electromagnetic domains for the effective operational use and support-related applications of NST.
China’s pursuit of NST, including space-borne and air-borne vehicles, is diverse, evolving, and sophisticated. Spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constitute the space segment of China’s RSC. The inadequacy of space-borne NST is what has compelled the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) to develop spy balloons, aerostats and UAVs. Indeed, the quest or the aim of the Chinese is to generate redundancy. Creating redundancy will enable the PRC to migrate to alternative airborne ISR platforms in case the PLASSF’s space-borne near-space assets are destroyed or significantly degraded during the course of a war. Many of Beijing’s adversaries possess counterspace capabilities that limit Beijing’s use of its space-borne ISR capabilities. On the battlefield, NSFVs could be highly effective simply because they bring a whole range of advantages for being agile, easy to manoeuvre, flexible, and possess stealth features.
Each of the airborne NST capabilities that the Chinese are deploying has varying levels of technological sophistication. The list, of course, is fairly exhaustive and we confine ourselves to a limited set of NSFVs that they have developed and are deploying. At the lower end are balloons and UAVs and at the upper end are hypersonic vehicles. Lower-end airborne ISR platforms are the high endurance solar powered drones—the Venus-50. This UAV was first flight tested in early September 2022. It was built by the Aviation Institute First Flight Research Institute. On its very first flight, it was declared a “complete success”. It is capable of flying over a considerable duration with a dual fuselage and uses exclusively solar energy to power it. The Venus-50, according to its developers, is capable of reconnaissance, mapping, communications, monitoring atmospheric weather patterns and so on. The Chinese appear optimistic about building on the success of the Venus-50 for high-endurance UAVs. The areas where they see opportunities to make advances are in new energy sources, composite materials, and flight control.
In addition to these low-end ISR UAVs or NSFVs, the Chinese also possess capabilities at the upper end. They include top-end ISR mission-capable NSFVs as well as strike mission-capable NSFVs. The latter set of UAVs are high altitude balloon-dropped hypersonic glide boost vehicles, which are still being developed or close to completion. Whereas the former set of NSFVs or high-end UAVs include the Wuzhen-8 (WZ-8), which is built by the Aviation Industry Corporation China (AVIC). This UAV is designed to perform reconnaissance missions and made its first public appearance in 2019.
WZ-8 drones are equipped with advanced electro-optical cameras and sensors. It is also equipped with a potent Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) that can map terrain under thick cloud cover and fog in real-time. It has already been deployed for reconnaissance missions against South Korea and Japan and can be modified sufficiently to execute precision strikes. The Chinese have openly stated that WZ-8 is operational and deployed. A somewhat less advanced drone of the Wuzhen series, the WZ-7—which is also a High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAV—has already been deployed close to Arunachal Pradesh at Nyingchi Mainling airport on China’s side of the Sino-Indian boundary. The WZ-7s are also deployed at the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Shigatse airbase located 150 kilometres north of Gangtok, Sikkim.
In the coming years, not just the PRC, but countries across the world, such as India, will need to recognise that the future battlefield will require investment in NSFVs. This battlefield will be very UAV or drone-intensive. Ongoing wars between Ukraine and Russia, Hamas and Israel, and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan all clearly demonstrate the imperative to invest in drones for both ISR and precision strike missions. But in addition to UAVs, there will be considerable investment in the development and deployment of aerostats and airships. Together, all these airborne NSTs will be crucial in filling the ISR gap that satellites cannot meet. Also, drones geared for precision strike operations will witness significant growth. Hypersonic weapons that the PRC has developed and are developing will be critical for India to counter China’s existing advantages.
About the author: Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation
Source: This article was published by Observer Research Foundation