China’s Supersonic Spy Drone WZ-8 could help it launch attacks against US warships around Taiwan

The aircraft resembles the DF-17 hypersonic glide ballistic missile and the Lockheed D-21 reconnaissance drone but differs in size, thrust, and speed.

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

According to leaked Pentagon documents, China has relocated its most advanced supersonic unmanned aerial vehicles to a military airbase in eastern China.

One of the leaked documents claims that over the next few months, the Chinese military will gain access to a reconnaissance drone that can travel at least three times the speed of sound while flying at high altitudes.

The “Washington Post” notes that a previously unreported, strictly confidential report by the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency indicates that Beijing has made significant technological advances that could enable it to attack US warships deployed around Taiwan and military bases in the area.

This document comprises satellite photographs taken on August 9, showing two Chinese reconnaissance drones with rocket propulsion designated “WZ-8” stationed at a military installation in Eastern China, approximately 560 kilometres from Shanghai. Produced by AVIC (the Aviation Industry Corporation of China), these unmanned aerial vehicles have one of the most advanced surveillance systems, which might allow Beijing to obtain real-time mapping data to assist in developing tactics or launching missile attacks in the event of future wars. The aircraft resembles the DF-17 hypersonic glide ballistic missile and the Lockheed D-21 reconnaissance drone but differs in size, thrust, and speed.

According to the coordinates provided in the document, the military base described as “Lu’an” is located in the Dushan District in the eastern province of Anhui.

A review of satellite images available through Google Earth and provided to the Washington Post by Planet Labs shows that the base has expanded many times over the past few years, with over 18 new structures built there since August 2020. As of the end of February 2022, new, significantly wider roadways have been constructed leading to hills south of the runways. In some places, the new cleared lane is about 40 meters wide, the Washington Post notes.

The drone does not appear to be designed for attacks at this time. It is challenging to detect and capture, and current air-to-air weapons in the United States are inadequate to shoot it down.

According to a report by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has “almost certainly” established its first UAV unit at the base. The base is a component of what is known as the Eastern Theatre Command, which is a component of the Chinese military that seeks to enforce Chinese claims to sovereignty over Taiwan.

The American newspaper asserts that the information regarding the Chinese reconnaissance drone “WZ-8” came from sensitive Pentagon files that were leaked in a group chat on the network known as Discord. It is speculated that a guard serving in the Massachusetts Air National Guard in the United States named Jack Teixeira, who is currently 21 years old, was responsible for their publishing on the internet. Teixeira was taken into custody by law enforcement officials a week ago and is facing charges relating to the unauthorised acquisition of classified defence papers and materials and the unauthorised storage and transmission of information important to national defence.

According to Reuters, this incident has the potential to be the most serious breach of US national security since 2010, when over 700,000 documents were published online by WikiLeaks. Other classified documents contain various disclosures about Chinese espionage and military modernisation, including intelligence revealing further Chinese spy balloons. These revelations include that China has been working to modernise its military.

According to The Washington Post, the disclosures regarding Beijing’s technological advancements come at a time when the rising military aggression around Taiwan is prompting new concerns about a future Chinese invasion of Taiwan’s self-governing democratic island. According to William Burns, the Director of the CIA, Chinese leader Xi Jinping wants the People’s Liberation Army to be ready to invade the island by the year 2027. He emphasised that this does not inevitably imply that measures of this sort will be put into effect.

Beijing debuted its “WZ-8” autonomous aircraft in 2019 when two of them participated in the military parade in Tiananmen Square commemorating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). According to the Washington Post, at the time, only a few military analysts believed that unmanned aerial vehicles were truly operational.

The documents also contain a report from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency detailing the potential flight paths of the unmanned aircraft and the twin-engine “H-6 M Badger” bomber used to launch WZ-8. After taking off from the military airbase, the aircraft will likely have to fly to the eastern coast of China before releasing the undetectable drone, which could enter Taiwanese or South Korean airspace at 30 km while travelling at three times the speed of sound. The document does not detail how the aircraft is propelled but states that “the engine’s characteristics are primarily related to the use of rocket fuel.”

The route map depicts how “electro-optical” cameras and drone sensors will collect intelligence over Taiwan and the western portion of South Korea, including the capital Seoul. According to the American publication, synthetic aperture radar would enable the drone to map the terrain at night and in mists.

Enthusiasts who use different programs to track the movements of the Chinese military air forces believe that a regiment from the 10th bomber division of the Eastern Theater – the division of the People’s Liberation Army that is most likely to carry out air strikes if China launches a full-scale attack against Taiwan – is located at the base.

According to Joseph Wu, an independent analyst from the Taiwanese capital Taipei who studies military facilities in China, the base has long been abandoned. It has even been used as a filming location for a patriotic action movie about the Sino-Japanese War. But since 2019, there have been clear signs that it has been put back into operation. Wu has traced the numerous construction activities, including the expansion of the pathways leading to the southern entrance of the cave to nearly 40 meters. The wingspan of the H-6 M Badger bomber used to launch the drone is about 32 meters.


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