In late October, the manufacturer finished assembling its first CH-4 at the Taizhou plant as part of the 157 million yuan (US$22.4 million) contract with the National Geomatics Center of China. Credit: Courtesy Yicai Global.

China’s Aerospace CH UAV, an affiliate of the country’s main space program contractor, has kicked off mass production at its new hometown factory, seeking to deliver 200 medium-sized and large military drones to international clients each year.

The first batch of Rainbow CH-4 drones have already been tested and will be delivered to government agencies soon, the Taizhou-based company said in a statement and reported by Yicai Global.

Aerospace CH UAV is controlled by an academy whose parent is the China Aerospace Science and Technology.

In late October, the manufacturer finished assembling its first CH-4 at the Taizhou plant as part of the 157 million yuan (US$22.4 million) contract with the National Geomatics Center of China regarding seven such types of drones to be used in emergency mapping.

Aerospace CH UAV, one of the few Chinese firms that have embarked on large civil drone manufacturing, showcased its technologies at Zhuhai’s 12th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition last year.

For years, advocates of US arms sales bemoaned tight export restrictions on armed drones, which has allowed China to move in on a lucrative market while depriving American companies of valuable business, Foreign Policy reported.

Jordan had originally requested to buy the Reaper, made by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, but was turned down. When Beijing subsequently secured the deal, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter lamented in late 2015 that “China is seizing the opportunity.”

More than two years later, China’s growing share of the armed drone market is on display. To date, only the United Kingdom, France, and Italy have bought an armed version of the MQ-9 Reaper, while other US allies, including Jordan, are flying Chinese drones, such as the CH-4.

The United States now belatedly is trying to recapture the armed drone market.

For years, US companies were restricted from such sales, in part as a result of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an international pact that aims to curb the export of certain long-range cruise missiles and drones. (China is not a signatory to the agreement.)

Faced with growing security concerns about Chinese tech companies sharing sensitive data with Beijing, the Pentagon recently banned the use of drones built by China’s DJI and may soon ban all Chinese-built drones and Chinese-manufactured components from military use.

But due to the country’s domination of the market and the dwindling US supply of the smallest class of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) — handheld drones increasingly used for reconnaissance missions — US troops now have limited options.

In addition to being able to sell to any willing buyer, the Chinese also offer the lowest prices on the market, CNBC reported.

According to Jack Watling, a land warfare expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, the UAE’s Chinese drone purchases began after the the US refused to sell them American armed UAVs.

Now, he says, “the (President Donald) Trump administration has reduced its threshold for sale, which partly happened after the UAE started its Chinese drone purchases.”

Gulf militaries do have American drones, but not ones capable of destroying targets. These include the US-made Predator XP, which can carry ISR camera packages, but it’s downgraded so that it can’t carry weapons systems.

“Chinese manufacturers appear to have spotted a gap in the market as a result of US restrictions on the sale of armed UAVs and have used this as a route to market,” says Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for Military Aerospace with International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Another advantage that Chinese systems offer as opposed to western systems is that Beijing is less selective with its clientele.

“The Chinese will sell without asking questions,” says Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher at SIPRI. “The Chinese will just take one look at you and sell to you. Western suppliers will look at you and give you a list of conditions.”

As well, the CH-4 is suitable for high-altitude missions over land and sea, and has a maximum take-off weight of 1,260kg (2,770 lb) and payload capacity of 115 kg. Endurance for the CH-4 series is claimed to be up to 30h.

The CH-4, has a wingspan of 18m, a take-off weight of 1.3 tons and a payload of 350 kg. The Chinese UAV can carry a payload including Lan Jian 7 (Blue Arrow 7) laser-guided air-to-surface missiles, TG100 laser/INS/GPS-guided bombs, and AR-1/HJ-10 anti-tank missile – the Chinese equivalent to the American-made Hellfire missile.

These are potent weapons, and offer a distinct advantage over US competitors, whose hands are tied with restrictions.

It is specifically designed for high-altitude missions over land and sea, and can fire its weapon from up to 5,000 meters.

The CH-4 also “has a retractable electro-optical sensor turret, and a datalink back to the ground control station. The CH-4 also boasts a modern, two person control station to fly the drone remotely, with provisions for both line of sight and satellite communications,” Popular Science notes.

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