The China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA), a subsidiary of the NASA-like China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, put forward the concept of future UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) warfare on April 24, the second national Space Day.
The CAAA's principal mission is to test the aerodynamic performance of China's aerial and aerospace vehicles, but it has also started to develop the "Caihong" (rainbow in English) series fixed-wing UAV.
The CAAA held the view that in future battlefields, UAVs would be taking on increasingly more aerial missions currently limited to manned aircraft. The conclusion was based on the success of Rainbow UAVs, especially CH-3 and CH-4, in anti-terrorism combat zones in both the Middle East and Africa.
"Highly intelligent and unmanned, UAVs can automatically perform many maneuvers, and get in and out of a hostile airspace without risking the life of a pilot," said Shi Wen, CAAA's chief UAV engineer. He added that UAVs still need pilots, although they control the drones hundreds of miles away.
In this way, many who are "smart but physically unfit" to fly regular military aircraft could prove their worth in piloting UAVs.
Shi revealed that of all the international operators of Rainbow UAV, only a few were established pilots of regular aircraft. "Training a UAV pilot is far easier and takes far less time [than training a regular pilot]," he added.
Its advantages of being risk-free, having long endurance and a high altitude range also make UAVs a game changer in future warfare. For example, CH-4 and CH-5 can both stay airborne for up to 40 hours. Both of them can reach an altitude higher than 7,200 meters and have a cruise altitude between 3,000 and 5,000 meters above sea level.
That would mean pilots on the ground take shifts but drones hover continuously above a hostile region. "It means higher efficiency and lower lost. One sortie of the UAV is equal to several completed by manned aircraft," said Shi.
He explained that although UAVs fly much slower than a manned jet plane, they have higher survivability because UAVs feature a higher cruise altitude (3,000-5,000 meters) whereas manned planes have to descend to a lower airspace to conduct reconnaissance or attack.
"Our calculations showed that in the same hostile airspace, the third-generation jet planes will be shot down more easily than UAVs," said the chief engineer.
The Rainbow drone's research team revealed that stealth technology is ready for UAV, but there has not been a demand yet for stealth drones, mostly because in the current anti-terrorism warfare, UAVs already amount to a risk-free solution.
Although aerial – rather than aerospace vehicles – Rainbow drones were the center of the CAAA's observance of the annual Space Day for the linkage between their superb aerodynamic performance and the academy's mission.