Interception Of Chinese UAS Prompts Questions

A photo supplied by Japan's Ministry of Defense of the intercepted TB-001.
Credit: Japan's Ministry of Defense

A Japanese interception of a Chinese-developed uncrewed air system (UAS) over the East China Sea has prompted questions about whether the platform has entered service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 

Japanese military aircraft intercepted the Tengoen Technology TB-001 Scorpion medium-altitude, long-endurance platform on Aug. 24 as it flew over the East China Sea, and almost halfway to Japan’s Ryukyu Islands. 

Imagery provided by Japan’s defense ministry shows the prop-driven TB-001 painted in a dark grey livery and bearing some form of serial number. It remains unclear as to whether the platform has formally entered PLA frontline use. 

On Aug. 25 PLA deployed another drone, this time a Harbin Aircraft Industry BZK-005. Unlike the TB-001, this UAS crossed the Miyako Straits into the Pacific Ocean. The type is in service with the PLA and PLA Navy. A pair of Y-9 anti-submarine aircraft and Y-9 electronic intelligence platform were also intercepted on the same day, although it was unclear if the three aircraft were performing the same mission concurrently.  

A TB-001 performed another mission on Aug. 26, following a similar profile as the BZK-005, and supported by the same two Y-9 variants, suggesting the PLA could be conducting some form of proof of concept exercise, comparing or evaluating the capabilities from each platform.

The BZK-005s are not as uncommon and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) has reported sightings of these platforms before. However, as Chinese beyond line-of-sight communications and drone technology improves, China could increase the frequency and size of these UAS sorties. That could force JASDF and Taiwan’s air force into attrition by regularly requiring them to scramble manned flights to identify and shadow the PLA aircraft. 

China’s twin-engined Scorpion has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 2.8 metric tons. The platform has a range of 6,000 km (3,728 mi.) and can fly for up to 35 hours. It has an estimated payload of 1 metric ton, which can include offensive weapons. Tengoen is also in partnership with courier company SF Express to develop a three-engined variant with MTOW of 3.2 tonnes and the ability to carry up to 1.2 tonnes for cargo delivery.

Chen Chuanren

Chen Chuanren is the Southeast Asia and China Editor for the Aviation Week Network’s (AWN) Air Transport World (ATW) and the Asia-Pacific Defense Correspondent for AWN, joining the team in 2017.