China may have just scored a success in its push toward eroding US air superiority. In late December, China’s Chengdu Aircraft Corp. unveiled its latest iteration of the Tian Yi drone.
According to IHS Jane’s 360, the Tian Yi is a high-altitude, long-endurance vehicle that could have stealth capabilities. CAC had released two models of the Tian Yi, in 2006 and in 2008. Critically, the latest model has a number of redesigns, including a wider air intake, a redesigned fuselage, and two turbofan engines. The purpose of this redesign, according to Jane’s, is likely to “suppress the UAV’s [unmanned aerial vehicle] infrared signature, which would stand out against in high cruise altitudes.” This new drone development is part of China’s efforts to match US military capabilities. Chinese hackers had previously conducted a two-year campaign against at least 20 foreign defense contractors in a bid to steal technology underpinning the US drone program.
According to Foreign Policy, the Tian Yi could function as a smaller rival to the American Global Hawk, the US’ flagship surveillance drone.
Drones are not the only area in which China has tried to close the technology gap with the US. CAC is developing the J-20, a fifth-generation fighter that could theoretically outperform the F-35 in certain areas. Of course, much of the development of the J-2o was made possible by Chinese hacking and other forms of espionage.
A Chinese entrepreneur was arrested in July after stealing gigabytes of data related to the F-35 and the F-22, along with other US military aviation projects. Previous extensive theft of F-35 data is believed to be the driver of a number of redesigns to the J-20 and the cause of the aircraft’s improvements within each prototype stage.