China has tested its first stealth combat drone, state media has said, citing online photos of an aircraft resembling a shrunken US B2 bomber and hailing the advance toward Western-level technology.
Photos and video of the tailless delta-wing drone flying were posted on the websites of People's Daily and other Chinese media outlets on Friday. The location of the 20-minute flight made on Thursday was identified only as a southwestern China testing base.
The jet powered drone was identified as the Lijian, or "Sharp Sword," and is another step in China’s years-long military build-up, with its defence spending now the second highest in the world and growing by double-digit percentages each year.
"The successful flight shows the nation has again narrowed the air-power disparity between itself and Western nations," the China Daily newspaper said, adding the flight made China the "fourth power... capable of putting a stealth drone into the sky".
The aircraft is similar to the X-47B drone being tested by the US Navy for aircraft carrier operations, as well as France's experimental Neuron project. Others have reported the drone is a reverse-engineered copy of Russia's Mikoyan Skat unmanned aerial vehicle.
This demonstrates the enormous investment that China is making toward building a world class level of military power
Potential uses of the aircraft range from conducting electronic surveillance to launching missile strikes. Some analysts have suggested the drone might someday be launched from China's sole aircraft carrier, possibly to fly missions around China's East China Sea and South China Sea island claims.
"This demonstrates the enormous investment that China is making toward building a world class level of military power," said Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the US-based think tank International Assessment and Strategy Center.
This type of aircraft "will greatly complicate the defence " of other countries, including Japan and the US, he added.
The capabilities of the drone and two manned stealth fighters, the J-20 and J-31 that China is developing are not yet known, although China's arms industry is producing increasingly sophisticated weapons systems, including a large range of military drones.
However, China has had difficulty developing reliable, high-performance engines for its latest generation aircraft and observers on military websites said the Sharp Sword appeared to be equipped with Russian-made turbofan engines that reduced on its radar-evading ability.
The test flight comes weeks after Tokyo said a drone had flown near East China Sea islands claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing, increasing the tensions between the rivals up another notch.