Chinese unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) are starting to show up in People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aerial intrusions against Taiwan.
From the beginning of August, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) indicates that there have been at least 604 aerial intrusions into its air defence identification zone (ADIZ), with some crossing the so-called ‘median line’ in the Taiwan Strait.
Total detections are considerably higher than the 604 figure, but the MND only itemises aircraft that impinge on its ADIZ or that cross the median line. On 26 September, for example, it says a total of 12 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft were detected, but it lists only three Shenyang J-16s as intruding into its southern ADIZ.
Since the beginning of August, fighters such as the Sukhoi Su-30, J-16 and Shenyang J-11 accounted for 543 ADIZ incursions, for 89.9% of the total. This was followed by support aircraft with 42 sorties and Xian H-6 bombers with 17 sorties.
Chinese incursions into its neighbour’s ADIZ have become routine in recent years, but the tempo increased significantly after the 2 August visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Beijing, which views the democratic island as a breakaway province, used the visit as a pretext to conduct live fire drills around Taiwan from 4-10 August, which included missile launches, and incursions by both aircraft and ships.
Following the cessation of drills, incursions by its aircraft and ships have continued, including sorties that cross the median line.
Notably, from early September UAVs have started conducting incursions. On 5 September the MND identified a single Guizhou Aircraft BZK-007 UAV flying into the southern ADIZ. This was the first of 18 distinct UAV sorties identified by the MND.
Overall, the BZK-007, which is understood to specialise in tactical reconnaissance, has made four sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ in September. The smaller Harbin BZK-005 has also made its Taiwan debut, conducting six sorties so far this month.
Other UAVs that have appeared are the CASC CH-4 (two sorties), WZ-7 (two sorties), KVD-001 (one sortie), and the twin-engined Tengden TB-001 (two sorties).
Of these assets, the most intriguing is the WZ-7 ‘Soaring Dragon’ – the only Chinese UAV listed by the MND that is powered by a jet engine.
The WZ-7, which appeared in the static display at Airshow China in September 2021, is billed as a high-altitude, long-endurance system with a similar role to the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk. The WZ-7 features a joined-wing design that is claimed to improve its lift and performance.
The first WZ-7 ADIZ incursion recorded by the MND took place in the country’s southern ADIZ on 15 September. On the same day, four J-16s and a single Shaanxi Y-9 electronic warfare aircraft appeared in the same airspace. It is not clear if the sorties were simultaneous.
The second WZ-7 incursion occurred on 23 September, again in Taiwan’s southern ADIZ. On the same day, a pair of J-16s followed a similar flight path, and a single BZK-007 impinged on Taiwan’s ADIZ further south.
The biggest day for Chinese UAV activity appears to have been 21 September, when three UAVs – a BZK-005, a TB-001, and a CH-4 – joined several fixed-wing aircraft for incursions across the median line and into the southern ADIZ.
Diagrams and imagery at Airshow China in recent years have highlighted that Beijing sees an important role for UAVs in naval warfare. The assets will play a key role in identifying targets and then relaying information to combat aircraft, warships, and surface-to-surface missile batteries located on the mainland. Following an engagement, they will be tasked with battle damage assessment work.
PLAAF UAVs are also likely be equipped with communications relay, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence payloads.
In addition to creating strategic uncertainty for Taiwan’s leadership, Chinese flights over the sea around Taiwan are seen as offering essential practice to PLAAF pilots. Similarly, UAV sorties familiarise operators on the ground about the dynamics of operating over the open sea.