For 17 minutes yesterday, China’s first domestically made stealth combat drone swept over the skies of the southwestern city of Chengdu, proclaiming to the world that China can now drop missiles and spy via remote control with enemy radar systems none the wiser. With the successful voyage of the Lijian (“sharp sword”), as the drone is known, China joins the U.S., the U.K. and France as the fourth country with jet-powered stealth combat drones.
Others are skeptical. Chinese military bloggers note that, based on the photos, the huge engine compromises its stealth, possibly because the Chinese Air Force has struggled to develop its own engines. Some suspect that the Lijian is a reverse-engineered version of Russia’s Mikoyan Skat drone, equipped with a Russian-made turbofan engine. Gerry Doyle at Sinosphere concludes that “the stealth features that would make a drone like this a potential balance-shifter remain unproven in this design.”
But though it might not be a game-changer, the Lijian is another landmark in China’s development of drone technology—part of a larger military buildup that the Pentagon worries could prove “potentially destabilizing” in the Pacific, as The New York Times reported last year.
How might the Lijian “destabilize” things in the Pacific? Du Wenlong, a military expert, told Chinese reporters that the Lijian’s combat radius is sufficient to patrol the disputed waters around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which both China and Japan claim. It can also provide high-resolution video of activity in the disputed territory, a former People’s Liberation Army major general told The South China Morning Post.
Used for video surveillance, the Lijian would escalate tension over the islands, as Rory Medcalf, a security expert at Sydney’s Lowey Institute, says. “So, the Chinese have kind of put Japan into an awkward position. If it lets them pass, or if it lets them fly over disputed, contested airspace then China is further establishing its presence there,” Medcalf told Voice of America News. “But, if Japan strikes back, then it’s really escalating tensions potentially towards conflict.”