China's first low-observable combat UAV flew for the first time on 21 November 2013, according to local media reports. Named 'Lijian' (Sharp Sword), the Chinese stealth UAV flew for almost twenty minutes, the cjdby.net website reported, followed by Xinhua news agency and other sources.
The People's Republic of China thus becomes the fourth nation to have flown a stealth drone, following the US and others' lead.
It seems the Lijian UAV was first unveiled six months ago, when it was shown carrying out ground trials at co-manufacturer HAIG's (Hongdu Aviation Industry Group's) airfield. Apparently, the Sharp Sword is a joint venture between Hongdu and Shenyang. A single-engined, tailless design, it part-resembles other UAVs including the Northrop Grumman X-47B and the MiG Skat.
China's adoption of stealth technology - as used in the Northrop B-2 (Stealth Bomber), Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk (Stealth Fighter) and other types - has been rapid in nature. In September 2012, the Shenyang J-21 - China's second stealth jet in as many years - was shown to the world. And, just last month, plans to develop long-range strategic stealth bombers were made public.
Chinese Stealth Drone
Once in service, the Lijian will reportedly work within the naval arena, equipping both the PLAAF (People's Liberation Army Air Force) and the PLAN (People's Liberation Army Navy). That's according to Xu Guangya, from the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association who, in comments quoted by the South China Morning Post, explained that the Chinese stealth drone will carry out both combat and reconnaissance.
"The drone, which is capable of flying undetected at high altitudes while providing high-resolution video and other intelligence, will let maritime departments keep abreast of developments in the East and South China seas and will help Beijing make accurate decisions when dealing with territorial disputes with its neighbours", he added.
Lijian Stealth UAV
Based in Nanchang, Hongdu is a leading Chinese aircraft manufacturing group. Previously named after its home city, the company adopted its current title in 1998. The Shenyang Aircraft Corporation was established in 1953 and has produced numerous fighters and bombers over the past 60 years.
Stealth is the branch of military technology concerned with concealment and deception, rendering aircraft, warships and missiles less visible on enemy radar screens. Basic stealth technologies might involve misleading paint schemes - more advanced approaches draw on specialised layouts, plus infrared and radar cross section signature reduction methods.
Image depicts X-45C UAV. Copyright US Navy - courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Used solely for representative purposes