China Tests New Variant Of Powerful Wing Loong Drones; Experts Call It Similar To American ‘Gray Eagle’ UAVs

Chinese drones have found widespread popularity globally, especially among the Middle-Eastern countries that have emerged as the biggest buyers of Chinese Wing Loong UAVs.

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Now, a new drone built entirely of composite materials has joined the Wing Loong family, reported Chinese state news agency Xinhua. According to the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the multipurpose drone named ‘Wing Loong-1E’ successfully completed its maiden flight on January 18.

According to AVIC, the large UAV performed an autonomous takeoff and then flew for 22 minutes in a good condition. The new model is built on the proven Wing Loong UAV platform, which has been refined and enhanced for better performance.

On January 20, two days after the maiden flight, analysts claimed that the new platform would outperform its predecessor in terms of range, endurance, efficiency, and reliability while remaining cost-effective.

The drone has reportedly undergone substantial optimization and performance advancements over its predecessor, according to AVIC. However, the company did not provide additional information regarding the aircraft’s performance specs.

After looking at two photos posted by AVIC showing the drone’s first flight, a Beijing-based military expert told the Global Times that although Wing Loong-1E looks similar to Wing Loong-1, the former has a distinct aerodynamic design. It also has upward-pointing winglets to the tip of the main wings like a Wing Loong-2.

CAIG Wing Loong II - Wikipedia
CAIG Wing Loong II – Wikipedia

Earlier, at the Air Show China 2021, Wing Loong-2 accomplished the first large UAV flying demonstration. It demonstrated autonomous take-off and landing, as well as ascent and air-ground coordination, as previously reported by CGTN. Wing Loong-2 is capable of both, reconnaissance as well as strike missions.

The previous Wing Loong family drones have found wide acceptability globally. China sold at least 15 Wing Loong II drones to Saudi Arabia since 2014 with plans to sell 285 more. Similarly, the UAE received both Wing Loong I and Wing Loong II drones from China in the past 10 years. Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq too reportedly operate Chinese drones.

Reports have suggested that the Chinese drones have also been used in Ethiopia during the conflict with Tigray rebels.

Last year in May, China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, a subsidiary of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), had announced the creation of a facility in Sichuan province specialized in creating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This is indicative of the Chinese intent and effort at manufacturing and upgrading its drone fleet.

The Wing Loong 1E

The Wing Loong 1E drone is believed to be lighter and sturdier than the original Wing Loong-1 because of the use of composite materials, according to the expert cited above. He further said that it will likely have a larger range and endurance, as well as higher efficiency and reliability.

Wing Loong 1E (via Twitter)

Some analysts believe the Wing Loong-1E could be comparable to the US MQ-1C Gray Eagle.

According to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ website, the American MQ-1C Gray Eagle has a maximum gross takeoff weight of 1,633 kg, a fuel capacity of 261 kg, an internal payload capacity of 261 kg, and an external payload capacity of 227 kg.

It has a service ceiling of 8,839.2 meters, a maximum endurance of 25 hours, and a speed of 309 kilometers per hour.

MQ-1C Gray Eagle- Wikipedia

Compared to its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle has a heavy fuel engine that produces more horsepower and has a higher fuel efficiency, using either jet or diesel fuel.

According to its manufacturer, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle can carry out persistent reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, and attack operations because of its electro-optical and infrared sensors, synthetic aperture radar, communication relay, and four Hellfire missiles.

Since the analysts have compared the Wing Loong 1E to the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, the new Chinese drone could be expected to carry out Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Intelligence (IRS) functions as well as strike operations similar to its predecessors.

It’s noteworthy that this new drone is being touted as cheaper than other drones in the category. It could be speculated that this drone will be marketed to foreign customers.

The Wing Loong Drone Family

Wing Loong is a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). The People’s Liberation Army Air Force uses the UAV mostly for surveillance and aerial reconnaissance missions (PLAAF).

The drone, which is equipped with a variety of armaments, may perform combat operations in addition to civil responsibilities including disaster assessment, meteorological operations, and environmental protection.

The development of the drone began in 2005, with the first test flight taking place in 2009. In 2010, a Wing Loong I prototype was displayed at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai.

The Wing Loong II, an updated version, was unveiled in September 2015 at the Beijing Aviation Expo. As of November 2019, more than 100 Wing Loong II UAVs had been supplied to different countries.

The Wing Loong-10, a ground assault variant of the Wing Loong, was unveiled in November 2020 at the Nanchang Airshow 2020.