Chinese H-6 bomber spotted ‘belly-bearing’ WZ-8 drone in new footage; Beijing appears to be winning ‘reconnaissance war’?

A photo has emerged on social media allegedly showing the Chinese H-6 strategic bomber flying overhead with a WZ-8 supersonic surveillance drone strapped to its belly.

Observers reporting on open-source intelligence (OSINT) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) defense technology believe that the image, while grainy, confirms a long-held assessment that the bomber and drone will be linked in the future.

The photowhich one first popped up on Chinese social media platform ‘Weibo’ showed an outline of an additional pair of delta wings outside the H-6’s silhouette.

It is not known whether this was part of a test routine, transport checking, release or launch trials or an operational exercise. However, it has highlighted reviews from different angles that are surprisingly consistent on how the drone would be used.

Design features

The WZ-8 high-speed drone was first unveiled during the National Day military parade in October 2019, where analysts also noted interesting details in close-up shots.

Ankit Panda, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, drew attention to the suspension lugs (for mounting bombers on the H-6), front section, front landing gear, rear section, with the exhaust in the form of a rocket nozzle, and delta wing configuration where the tips are raised in vertical stabilizers.

The rudders on the vertical stabilizers also showed antennas sticking out, which can be assumed to have been for transmitting radio for post-launch guidance. China is well aware of the advances in electronic warfare (EW) manifested in the war between Russia and Ukraine, and of the lessons learned by its main strategic rival the US itself.

How will it be used?

It can be assumed that the drone is at least semi-autonomous – if not fully autonomous and free from manual control – in a significant part of its mission profile. This would occur while conducting high-speed reconnaissance flights collecting optical or electromagnetic data from the battlespace.

The nozzle design is a classic rocket exhaust, as seen in the Russian Soyuz, Angara, American Delta, Atlas, Saturn or even NASA’s Space Shuttle. The overall aerodynamically stable shape, apart from the nozzle, indicates that the aircraft is intended less for maneuverability and more for high speeds.

This kinematic feature can also be seen in other high-speed photo-reconnaissance aircraft, such as the Russian MiG-25 Foxbat used by the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the US’s Cold War-era SR-71 Blackbird.

Broadly speaking, an operational procedure might involve the WZ-8 flying along waypoints and directions set on the ground over a general battle space, activating its sensors (possibly electronic and optical), flying back and landing autonomously.

The WZ-8 and WZ-7 Soaring Dragon will be deployed when People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commanders want to “wipe” a battlespace of all electronic and radar data.

They can create a general target image to initiate long-range, standoff anti-ship and land attack fires. It can be concluded that the drones would be flown before the start of any operations.

‘China wants reconnaissance and surveillance leader’

The April 2023 Washington Post (WaPo) report on leaked documents from the online group Discord on Chinese military drones, specifically the WZ-8, confirms the above analysis. The report discusses the H6-WZ8 link, almost a year later the same aircraft is seen with the drone in its undercarriage.

“The twin-engine H6-M Badger bomber (will be) used to launch it. After taking off from its home airbase, the fighter would fly just off China’s east coast before releasing the stealthy drone, which could then enter Taiwanese or South Korean airspace at an altitude of 30,000 feet and fly three times as fast as the sound.

The document does not detail how the drone is propelled, but says “engine characteristics are primarily associated with rocket fuel.”

Computer-generated illustration of the WZ-8 under the H-6 strategic bomber. Source: Weibo

Another photo this popped up in May 2023 the WZ-8 showed with two boosters (one on each side). Possibly powered by solid fuel, the booster configuration could evolve into an alternate launch mechanism, accelerating the WZ-8 to cruising speed before jettisoning it.

In addition to “electro-optical cameras and sensors” for gathering “intelligence on the main island of Taiwan and the western side of South Korea, including Seoul, the use of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) would allow for area surveillance at night and to be mapped in foggy weather’. said the WaPo report.

WaPo quoted the director of the aeronautical systems research department of the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCIST), Chi Li-pin, as saying that the primary use of the drone will not be against Taiwan, but against the United States and its to land. military bases in the Pacific…It is a weapon against access and area denial,” he said.

Chi added that the aircraft did not appear to be designed to carry out attacks but could be adapted for that purpose. “It is difficult to detect and intercept. Existing US air-to-air weapons are not good enough,” he said. Other experts noted that even Japan and India “should be worried about it.”

Ironically, India too boasts of supersonic high-speed platforms being invulnerable to air defense when it advertises the Mach 3-plus speeds of the Indo-Russian BrahMos (a derivative of Moscow’s P-800 Onyx) land and ship attack cruise missile. Indian planners therefore know the value of such weapons all too well.

An inherent dilemma for adversaries, even if they detect the WZ-8, would be whether to redeploy their resources on the battlefield – a tedious and time-consuming process. Even if they choose such an option, it would pose the risk of detection-friendly movements and radio communications that could be picked up by Chinese satellites and electronic snooping.

‘Intelligentized warfare’

The report noted that China’s goal was to strengthen its “surveillance” and “reconnaissance” capabilities, to “find” and “strike” the enemy. On a broader doctrinal level, it was consistent with the PLA’s “intelligent warfare,” which placed battlespace knowledge, resilient “kill chains,” and greater situational awareness above core combat power.

Possibly, following the launch of the WZ-8, the ‘K’ variants of the H-6 (H-6K) could take off in a squadron of 18 to 20, armed with YJ-12 anti-ship cruise missiles, or KD-20 , CJ-10K, and CJ-20 land-attack cruise missiles that shower a Marine armada or an island with more than 100 projectiles rushing toward them. The WZ-8 and H-6 would be China’s attempt to have the most number of ‘eyes’ in the sky.

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