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China's cut-price drones attract Asian and African buyers

Zhuhai airshow the stage for military muscle-flexing

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China’s inexorable rise as a hi-tech military superpower reached another milestone this week as it showcased a range of new drone aircraft remarkably similar to US machines but pitched at a lower price point to attract buyers from the developing world.

The Zhuhai airshow in southern China’s Guangdong province was the platform for China’s state-owned aviation giants to show off their latest unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp (CASIC) touted six civilian and military drones including some under the new brand name ‘Hiwing’, or Sea Hawker, according to Bloomberg.

Huang Xingdong, deputy head of CASIC’s drone-building biz, told the news wire that China’s on-going dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands as well as rising maritime tensions elsewhere will double its UAV sales next year.

He added that the non-military market alone will grow to several billion yuan a year, as China ramps up its capabilities.

Meanwhile, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and its main competitor Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) showed off their latest UAVs.

CASC’s CH-4 is a reconnaissance and combat drone with a range of 3,500 kilometres capable of carrying four precision-guided bombs, while the almost identical Wing Loon from AVIC has a range of 4,000 kms and can fly for around 20 hours, according to Global Post.

Both are said to be very similar in mission capability to the United States’ larger UAV, the MQ-9 Reaper, but with a price tag at just under $1m that is attracting buyers from Asia and Africa.

Pakistan has already purchased several CH-3’s from CASC which have now been upgraded to CH-4s, while officials from Kenya, Russia and Myanmar were also interested in the UAVs, the Post said.

Along with the US and Israel, China is the member of an exclusive triumvirate of countries with the technical know-how to manufacture armed drones, and its determination to produce cheap, similarly spec’d technology is likely to see it carve out a sizeable niche in this space. ®

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