America's Iconic Reaper Drone Has Stiff New Chinese Competition

The CH-5 is now all but ready to enter service with the Chinese military, as well as go up for sale on the international market.

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Nov 4 2016, 11:15am

Image: CCTV


State media footage of the CH-5 on its first flight in 2015

Chinese military officials formally unveiled the country's CH-5 UAV at a state air show this week, signalling a refreshed drone arms race with the United States.

The CH-5 is able to stay aloft for up to 50 hours with an operational range of 20,000 kilometers, bearing uncanny similarities to General Atomic's MQ-9 Reaper in many metrics. The Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV is now all but ready to enter service with the Chinese military, as well as go up for sale on the international market.

It's the latest in China's line of 'Rainbow' drones, and can carry up to eight AR-1 air-to-ground missiles, with a service ceiling of around 16,000 feet. Endurance is reduced to 32 hours with this maximum payload. But the CH-5's manufacturer, China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA), is more than chuffed with the UAV's US-baiting stats, however.

Shi Wen, chief designer of the CH-5, told Chinese media that the drone's specifications hold up next to the MQ-9 Reaper. "Hovering above a hostile region for that long [a] time creates enough deterrence," Shi said. "You can just imagine a drone carrying eight missiles and watching you from above non-stop for 24 hours."

But according to Breaking Defense, the CH-5's abilities pale in comparison to the Reaper.

"To the untrained eye the two drones may look a hell of a lot alike," wrote Richard Whittle last year. "But we hear from experts who cannot be named that the similarities between the Caihong 5 and the Reaper are at best superficial."

The CH-5 made its maiden flight in September 2015. Since then, China has touted the drone's hunter-killer capabilities to markets in the Middle East, and has managed to fill a vacuum the US has refused to enter. Iraq and other countries have already invested in the CH-5's predecessors, like the CH-3 and CH-4, which come at a reduced cost compared to their American counterparts. In late 2015, Jordan requested Reaper drones from the US State Department to help in the fight against ISIS, but the US wasn't keen on exporting such technologies. Instead, Jordan—just like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt—turned to China and its CH-5.

Read more: Iraqi Forces Debut ISIS-Hunting Remote Tank

"While the US maintains a slight advantage in drone capability and production, the failure of the State Department to do business on this front has created a new market for China," US representative Duncan Hunter wrote in Defense One.

And that market is being seized, fast. CAAA's Shi told Chinese state media at the 11th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition on Tuesday that all countries in the Middle East could be potential buyers of the CH-5, except "ISIS-haunted" Syria.

"We may be a little inexpensive," Shi said, "but we do win by our reliability, not our lower price."

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