The People's Liberation Army will soon have an unusually shaped drone, which is expected to strengthen the Chinese military's aerial reconnaissance capabilities.
An unknown number of Xianglong, or Soar Dragon, high-altitude, long-endurance drones have been produced by Guizhou Aviation Industry Group, which is part of the State-owned aircraft maker Aviation Industry Corp of China, according to aviation sources.
The aircraft is believed to be undergoing testing and is expected to be delivered to the PLA soon, sources said, adding that it is likely to become China's answer to the United States' Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, considered to be the most well-known unpiloted surveillance drone in the world.
With an innovative "joined tandem wing" design, the drone's configuration is different from all other Chinese manned and unmanned planes — it has a conventional swept wing joined with a forward swept wing, which makes it look like a traditional Chinese kite.
In accordance with Chinese regulations, Guizhou Aviation Industry Group has not, and will not, reveal characteristics of the drone. However, AirForces Monthly, a British military aviation magazine, said Xianglong will have a cruise speed of 750 kilometers per hour and a flight range of 7,000 km. It is capable of operating for 10 hours in the sky and can fly up to an altitude of 18,000 meters, the magazine said.
Xianglong was first unveiled in 2006 at an air show in China, but later disappeared from public view until 2011 when a prototype was seen at an airport run by the Aviation Industry Corp of China.
No other news on the drones development has been leaked since then, and whether it has conducted its first flight remains unknown.
However, since July, speculation about the mass-production of Xianglong started to circulate on Chinese defense technology websites after Guizhou Aviation Industry Group published a photo of one of its manufacturing facilities on the internet. The photo mainly displayed the assembly process of the company's JL-9 Mountain Eagle fighter-trainer jet, but two yellow Xianglong models also appeared in the corner of a picture, leading observers to discuss whether the inclusion was intentional.
In October, Chinese websites published a satellite-taken picture showing at least two Xianglong drones at an unidentified airport in Southwest China.
"The Xianglong's unique design makes it suitable for long operations at high altitude. Once the drone is commissioned to the military, it will boost the PLA's long-range reconnaissance capabilities," said Wang Ya'nan, editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine.
"Moreover, the jet is a good platform for electronic warfare operations such as signal intelligence collection and electronic jamming," he added.
The PLA has become a big user of unmanned aircraft thanks to the rapid development of the drone industry in China. The military showed three types of unpiloted, fixed-wing planes at the most recent parade in September last year. It is also said to have deployed several other models.
In addition to the PLA, advances in the nation's drone technology have also benefitted at least 10 foreign countries, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan, with foreign media reporting such countries have bought and deployed Chinese military drones.