A grainy video doing the rounds on social media of a flying wing drone has been claimed to be the GJ-11 ‘Sharp Sword’ Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). But a closer look at the drone indicates it might either be the H-20 stealth strategic bomber or the Rainbow-7 (or CH-7) long-range stealth reconnaissance UAV.
There has been no official confirmation on the video, except for occasional video leaks, animated graphics, videos released by enthusiasts or state media, or the rare statements by China’s defense industry officials during air shows.
PLA's CH-7 reconn. and strike Steath UAV spotted somewhere over China ?
Max Takeoff weight – 13 Tonnes
Speed – Mach 0.9
Range – 3500 km pic.twitter.com/T53xrchVx5
— Húrin (@intel1osint100) October 16, 2022
Nevertheless, the case can be made that China’s leading military aviation programs, especially stealth projects, are progressing at a consistent, if not rapid, pace.
The video clicked from the ground and captured a bottom view of the UCAV, showing the flying-wing drone flying from right to left. According to a Chinese-speaking person who interacted with this correspondent, the male voice in the video kept saying it was the H-20 bomber.
Video Vs. Teasers, Leaks & Renditions Of H-20, CH-7 & GJ-11
For one, the flying-wing design appears to be different than the GJ-11 ‘Sharp Sword’, which has a more pronounced triangular shape that merges into the body-fuselage.
EurAsian Times had reported on a China Central Television (CCTV) animated graphic showing the J-20 stealth fighter flying with GJ-11 drones as ‘wingmen.’
The drone in the latest video has the leading and the trailing edges distinct from the fuselage, almost looking like a diamond-shaped object given regular ‘swept-back’ wings.
This difference in wing design can be easily discernible even in the pixelated video and photos of the GJ-11 drone and mock-ups – from Chinese air shows to computer graphics – available online.
Thus, the likelihood of the drone being the GJ-11 is significantly less, leaving only the CH-7/Rainbow-7 or the H-20 bomber.
Here too, the leading and the trailing edges of the drone in the video seem to be intersecting, whereas the leading and trailing edges of the Rainbow-7/CH-7 are parallel. A popular photo of the drone’s mock-up by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASIC) clearly shows the edges are parallel.
The H-20 bomber, on the contrary, has only three officially released teasers – one where the plane was shown covered in a white sheet, a front view of an actual sizeable flying-wing jet on the runway, and a slick recruiting video by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Models shown having parallel leading and trailing edges have been unofficial depictions.
In the teaser trailers, the PLAAF and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) video showed the H-20 having over-wing air intakes. The China Central Television (CCTV) footage showed side intakes between the wing and fuselage. The plane was on the runway in this video, indicating it was undergoing taxiing or runway trials.
The last such bunch of H-20 leaks that sent the internet into a tizzy was scale models undergoing wind tunnel testing, with observers speculating two possibilities.
One, the final H-20 model would be closest to the mock-ups used for wind tunnel tests if one considers the precedent of the J-20. Or two, the wind tunnel test must gather data about the airflow, speed, angle of attack, etc., by placing sensors around the model.
Nevertheless, the scale models, the unofficial depictions, and the AVIC and PLAAF teasers have shown wing configurations similar to the one seen in the video, except for the intersecting leading and trailing edges seen in the latter.
Thus, if it is either the H-20 or the CH-7/Rainbow-7, we can conclude that the designers only decided to tweak wing edges, retaining the rest of the features shown in the teasers and unofficial renditions.
Might Not Be H-20 Either
Speaking to the Eurasian Times, Germany-based Chinese military aviation expert Andreas Rupprecht particularly dismissed it as being even the H-20, let alone the GJ-11, based on a vital observation.
He also proposed another possible candidate. “It looks smaller than what we expect for the H-20. (Thus) the H-20 is surely not…I simply rate it impossible,” Rupprecht said. Rupprecht believes it could possibly be the CS-550T small target drone.
The CS-550T target drone, along with the CS-300T were unveiled at the air show held by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in Changchun in August this year. Developed and built by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (AVIC) Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group, a report in China Daily quoted engineer Yang Zhu saying the two had completed test flights and were ready to take orders.
AVIC presentó dos nuevos drones para el mercado en el salón de la industria aeronáutica de Changchun, se trata del CS-550T y el CS-300T. pic.twitter.com/eRD0VK133T
— SeguridadyDefensaVZLA (@SEGyDEFENSAVzla) September 3, 2022
The CS-550T has a delta wing shape and features stealth capability and high maneuverability and can be used to simulate various tactical operations.
The unmanned jet is 4.5 meters long with a wingspan of 5.5 meters; can carry more than 50 kilograms of mission payloads, including electronic jamming devices, and decoy flares; has a maximum speed of about 860 kilometers per hour and; can remain airborne for over an hour.
It has landing gear that allows it to take off and land on its own. It can also be launched by rocket boosters and recovered by parachutes.
H-20 Strategic Bomber
Made and designed by AVIC subsidiary, the Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation, the H-20 supersonic stealth bomber is expected to have double the strike range of its current H-6K, considered China’s B-52.
The H-20 can take off from bases in mainland China and has reportedly been designed to hit targets beyond the second island chain, which includes US bases in Japan, Guam, and the Philippines.
It can carry nuclear and conventional missiles with a maximum take-off weight of at least 200 tons and a payload of up to 45 tons, according to Business Insider. The bomber is expected to fly at subsonic speeds and could potentially unleash four powerful hypersonic stealth cruise missiles.
The US Department of Defense estimates the J-20 to have a cruising distance of more than 8,500 kilometers. It is supposed to be the last in China’s ’20’ series of new-generation warplanes, which includes the J-20 stealth fighter jet, the Y-20 giant transporter, and the Z-20 medium-lift utility helicopter.
Currently, only the US has long-range strategic stealth bombers, with the B-2 ‘Spirit’ being still in service and expected to be replaced by the under-development B-21 ‘Raider.’ Russia’s PAK-DA and China’s H-20 would make them the second and third nations with such a capability.
The Rainbow-7/CH-7, meanwhile, is developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC). According to Global Security, the CH-7 is a “high-altitude, subsonic, long-haul drone that is used for strategic level information protection, high-value targets, continuous reconnaissance of enemy forces, air defense suppression, and alert detection.”
Other reports said the CH-7 is designed to “detect and destroy hostile strategic targets” and that the two rear landing gear bays also serve as internal payload bays for electronic warfare systems, guided bombs, and various air-to-surface missiles.