Chinese military drones are challenging U.S. and Israeli industry domination with its newly developed cheaper version of the MQ-9 Reaper – the Wing Loong unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). As companies predict a rise in demand, particularly in Asia, Western manufacturers can no longer ignore the country’s strides in aerospace and defense.

At the ongoing Singapore Airshow 2018, China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC), the export unit of the state-owned aerospace and defense giant Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), showcased the company’s Wing Loong family of armed reconnaissance UAVs.

CATIC presented two versions of its Wing Loong reconnaissance and strikes unmanned aerial system (UAS) at the show – the Wing Loong I and its upgraded version, the Wing Loong II. According to trade media, it was the drones’ first public appearance in Southeast Asia.

Cheaper but less reliable

Chinese ambitions seem to be aiming at seizure of market share from incumbents such as the U.S.’s General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the manufacturer of the MQ-9 Reaper used by the U.S Air Force (USAF), and Israel Aerospace Industries, which both dominate the killer drone manufacturing industry.

Because the Wing Loong UAVs cost about $5 million in contrast with the up to $100 million for a U.S. made system, it can be a viable alternative for less affluent militaries, says Ben Moores, a senior analyst for defense and aviation at Jane’s by HIS Markit. It could also be appealing to countries that have tense relations with the U.S. and Israel.

In February, 2017, Chinese state news agency Xinhua announced that the country’s home-made military drones had won their largest ever overseas order from an undisclosed buyer.

Just recently, in January, 2018, Ji Xiaoguang, president of Chengdu Aircraft Design & Research Institute (CADI), told China Daily that “The Wing Loong II has earned the largest order for Chinese UAV in the global foreign military trade. In the future, more series and members of the Wing Loong family are under plan.”

However, analysts caution to take China’s claims of such sales with a grain of salt. According to them, China has not yet taken away any business from U.S. and Israeli drone makers and has so far sold to customers that are simply unable to afford the more expensive products, Reuters writes.

According to Moores, “We’ve not seen any developed leading military get anywhere near to buying Chinese UAV’s.” Nevertheless, he admits that “factors are moving in China’s favor on a daily basis.”

Jane’s by IHS Markit now predicts that countries such as Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan and the Philippines could be in the market for these drones. It says that Malaysia is potentially seeking 24 units and Indonesia is looking at 20.

The Wing Loong UAV exhibited at the 2012 Airshow China. (AFP Photo)

According to Reuters, Western manufacturers at the Singapore Airshow acknowledged the growing presence of their Chinese rival, but said their advantage is many years of experience.

“If you look at the Wing Loong, it looks just like our airplane,” said Joseph Song, vice president for international strategic development at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the manufacturer of the MQ-9 Reaper.

But, “At the end of the day anybody can make an airplane. What’s important is what you do with that platform,” Song said. “We’ve flown 5 million hours on this airplane [the MQ-9]. That’s more than all the UAVs combined in the world.”

Israel’s Aeronautics said it had a 40-year track record with 70 clients across 55 countries. Their drones had been tested through many development cycles and been proven in combat.

“When you buy Chinese for now, you pay less, you get less. Less by reliability, less by safety,” said Dany Eshchar, Aeronautic’s deputy chief executive for marketing and sales at Israel Aeronautics, adding that nobody can “shortcut 40 years to five years.”

The Western drone manufacturers are therefore counting on their track records and customers’ appreciation of a good product in contrast to the cheaper and perhaps less reliable alternative, even if that means paying a little more.

Wing Loong UAV development

The Wing Loong is a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) and strike-capable UAV developed by Chengdu Aircraft Design & Research Institute (CADI), a division of China’s AVIC. It was developed primarily for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and is intended for surveillance and aerial reconnaissance missions.

Development of the Wing Loong UAVs began in 2005 and the first test flight was conducted in 2009. A prototype of the Wing Loong I was showcased during the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai in 2010, while the Wing Loong II was unveiled at the Beijing Aviation Expo in 2015, Air Force Technology writes.

The Wing Long I conducted its maiden flight in 2007, and its upgraded version successfully completed its maiden flight in 2017. Now, China is aiming to roll out an improved model – the Wing Loong ID – in 2018.

“The Wing Loong ID is the first generation of improved reconnaissance-strike UAS in China. With other members of the family, it will help enhance the influence of Wing Loong brand in the global military trade market,” Li Yidong, chief designer of the drone series, told China Daily.