A leaked US military assessment has said that the Chinese PLA may soon deploy a high-altitude spy drone that travels at least three times the speed of sound
|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
The recent experiment by China’s AI-controlled Qimingxing-1 remote sensing satellite observing the Danapur cantonment in Bihar and the Osaka port in Japan for a period of 24 hours without human control and its implications have been covered elsewhere in these columns. The recent incident of the US shooting down a Chinese spy balloon over its territory had brought into focus the fact that China has been deploying spy balloons all over the world including over India and Japan to gather intelligence.
US Special Operations Command’s has been looking for a new High-Speed Vertical Take-Off and Landing (HSVTOL) aircraft which is used for Special Operations Forces (SOF)
The Chinese have been obsessed with surveillance within China and around the globe for a long time. On February 14, 2023, White House spokesman John Kirby said that China has a high-altitude balloon programme for intelligence collection that's connected to the People's Liberation Army. In 2005, the Chinese government created a mass surveillance system called Skynet. The government revealed Skynet's existence in 2013, by which time the network included over 20 million cameras. Earlier, IHS Markit had estimated that as of 2021, there were over one billion surveillance cameras installed worldwide and that 54 per cent of these were possibly in China although exact number could not be pinpointed.
Now a leaked US military assessment has said that the Chinese PLA may soon deploy a high-altitude spy drone that travels at least three times the speed of sound. This was reported by the Washington Post on April 17, 2023 citing a secret document of America’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The document features satellite imagery dated August 9, 2022, showing two WZ-8 rocket-propelled reconnaissance drones at an air base in eastern China, about 350 miles (560 km) inland from Shanghai. The report in the Washington Post says that according to the US assessment, China's PLA had "almost certainly" established its first unmanned aerial vehicle unit at the base, which falls under the Eastern Theater Command, the branch of the Chinese military responsible for enforcing Chinese sovereignty claims over Taiwan.
Research is on for developing hypersonic transport aircraft, both for military and commercial use, that can fly at speeds greater than Mach 5
In contrast, India’s long-endurance UAV launched in early 2000s with induction planned in 2016 has been hiccupping. Only in 2021, the ‘Tapas’ UAV achieve an altitude of 28,000 feet. In July 2022, the government ordered HAL to manufacture six Tapas UAVs for evaluation trials. But only during Aero India 2023 it was unveiled.
The Washington Post said it obtained the assessment of the programme from a trove of images of classified files posted on the Discord messaging app. The US data leaks embarrassed the US by revealing it has been spying on allies and also revealed Ukrainian military vulnerabilities particularly in the sphere of air defence. Interestingly, Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader of North Korea has also ordered his officials to launch the first spy satellite as planned, saying that boosting reconnaissance capabilities is a priority to counter "threats" from the United States and South Korea.
In terms of speedy transportation, it was covered in these columns recently that the US Special Operations Command’s has been looking for a new High-Speed Vertical Take-Off and Landing (HSVTOL) aircraft as a high-speed successor to its current CV-22B Osprey, which is used for Special Operations Forces (SOF). Such an aircraft would not require a landing strip and can speedily transport the SOF to difficult and inaccessible areas.
Concurrently, research is on for developing hypersonic transport aircraft both for military and commercial use. The Hypersonic flight is a flight through the atmosphere below altitudes of about 90 km at speeds greater than Mach 5, a speed where disassociation of air begins to become significant and high heat loads exist. Speeds of Mach 25+ have been achieved below the thermosphere as of 2020. NASA’s experimental space plane, the X-43A is the first aircraft to reach hypersonic speeds using an air-breathing engine. Guinness World Records recognised NASA's X-43A scramjet with a new world speed record for a jet-powered aircraft - Mach 9.6, or nearly 11,200 km/h. The X-43A set the new mark and broke its own world record on its third and final flight on November 16, 2004.
NASA has commissioned a study to ascertain the feasibility of building a hypersonic aircraft model for commercial transport and everyday travel
In February 2020, NASA commissioned a study, with a budget of about $2,64,000, to ascertain the feasibility of building a hypersonic cruiser - to create a hypersonic aircraft model for commercial transport and everyday travel. Commercial transportation at hypersonic speeds can have a huge impact on humans with travel time reduced drastically, even though hypersonic transportation would cause environmental problems of sonic booms and emissions that would pollute the environment.
A supersonic transport (SST) or a supersonic airliner is a civilian supersonic aircraft designed to transport passengers at speeds greater than the speed of sound. To date, the only SSTs to see regular service have been Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144. However, given the pace of advances in technology, it is a matter of time that hypersonic transportation will come through. In the military, the SOF may be the first ones to use this mode of transportation.