Wednesday, May 16, 2012

‘Mystery’ UAVs seen on Type 054A vessel; 'Varyag' completes sixth sea trial

An unmanned helo hovers near the Type 054A Zhoushan
It’s difficult to tell from the pictures released so far, but the unmanned helicopters look suspiciously like the Austrian-made S-100 

The Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force released pictures on Tuesday of unspecified unmanned helicopters accompanying one of the three Chinese warships that crossed the Strait of Osumi on April 29 on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

After reaching the Pacific earlier this month, the Type 054A missile frigates Zhoushan (529) and Xuzhou (530) and the electronic reconnaissance and missile tracking ship Beijixing (851) launched exercises about 700km off Japan’s Okinotori. The JSDF yesterday announced that a P-3C surveillance aircraft had spotted the three vessels on May 14 as they crossed the strait on their way back to the East China Sea.

UAVs on the deck of the Type 054A
The pictures released by the JSDF, though blurry, have raised speculation that the unmanned helicopters may be Schiebel Camcopter S-100s, of Austrian origin. There are unconfirmed reports that the People’s Liberation Army placed a large order for them a while ago. With its VTOL capabilities, the S-100 is one of the few UAVs with the proven ability and weight to take off from surfaces at sea. Its first successful trial, on an Italian naval vessel, was announced in April this year.

The 110kg (empty weight) helicopter can carry an estimated 90kg payload, including a variety of electro-optical and infrared camera systems, with radar options also made available to customers recently. According to the manufacturer, the S-100 can operate for 6 hours and has an operational range of up to 180km. Foreign clients, including South Korea (where one crashed on May 11, killing one person), Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Libya, have acquired the platform, with the Pakistani navy expressing interest.

It remains to be seen, however, whether China acquired the S-100, given EU embargo. Another possibility is that the UAVs are S-100 derivatives or copies, which would not be altogether unusual for China. A number of civilian and military manufacturers in China have engaged in the development of UAVs in recent years. (The S-100 was showcased at the Fourth China International Exhibition on Police and Anti Terrorism Technology and Equipment Exhibition held in Beijing in April last year.)

Meanwhile, China’s first aircraft carrier, the refurbished Varyag, returned to Dalian on Tuesday after a nine-day sea trial. My article on the subject, published in the Taipei Times, on May 18, can be accessed here, and here in Jane’s Defence Weekly (subscription required).

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