China Looks at Space Plane
Four Hypersonic Aircraft Concepts Unveiled at Airshow
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — China’s aviation industry is nurturing the design of stealthy, hypersonic combat aircraft that might fly beyond the borders of space.
Revealed at the recent 8th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition (2010 Zhuhai Airshow), the winners of the 4th National Future Aircraft Design Competition were the Merlin fighter-bomber, SkyNet airship, Wolf Rider unmanned combat aircraft and the Shadow Dragon unmanned bomber. Though the four design concepts are well beyond China’s technical capabilities and “smack of science fiction fantasy,” all four represent a real effort on the part of the People’s Liberation Army to militarize space, said Ian Easton, a specialist in Chinese aeronautics at the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute.
Easton said a lot of intellectual capital and time went into the designs. “Clearly, the PLA is demonstrating a welldeveloped interest in a hypersonic nearspace platform here — something you could also refer to as a space plane,” he said.
Sponsored by China Aviation Industry Corp. (AVIC), the contest gave two first prizes to Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU), China’s top aeronautics research institute, and two second prizes to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Engineering College, the PLAAF’s top aeronautics school.
The designers made numerous references to Boeing’s unmanned X-51 scramjet, said to be able to hit speeds up to Mach 6.
Another analyst, Richard Fisher with the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the design contest indicates an effort by China’s defense industry to encourage “future gazing … which as we know from our experience leads to efforts that achieve real advances.”
Easton said that the vehicles represent many of the “most troubling aspects of China’s military modernization program, in the sense that, like China’s ongoing ballistic missile and cruise missiles programs, they would all be highly destabilizing and could be used for both conventional and nuclear attack roles.”
“China urgently needs a new bomber for the 21st century,” the NPU team wrote in their contest entry, citing limitations with the H-6 medium-range bomber and JH-7 fighterbomber.
So they designed their Merlin twin-engine near-space hypersonic fighter-bomber to perform reconnaissance, precision strikes, and attacks on satellites and spacecraft in low Earth orbit.
The designers drew on existing technologies such a “pneumatic bionic design” that allows the wings to bend slightly “like a bird.” They also admitted borrowing from the Boeing 787 wing design.
Wing-body integration, a rear intake, oblique shape and radar-absorbent composite materials help make the aircraft stealthy. The engines also have “two-dimensional nozzles” giving it more maneuverability. Technical specifications include a speed of Mach 6, combat radius of 5,000 miles and 22,000-pound payload.
The PLAAF’s SkyNet looks nothing like the other near-space designs; it proposes an airship that rides to space atop a ballistic missile, then divides into a “hexagonal structure” and inflates using hydrogen and nitrogen.
Its designers say SkyNet could handle battlefield reconnaissance and surveillance, mapping, communications relay, early warning and command, electronic warfare, and targeting for laser-guided bombs.
Also, they say, the aircraft could be armed with a “laser for self-defense.” SkyNet is delivered into near space using a conventional ballistic missile.
“The SkyNet concept as outlined is bold but will require real advances in materials and propulsion in order to produce a large enough space platform for the suggested small launch package,” Fisher said. One day, he said, a SkyNet-like platform could “provide a vital force multiplier.”
The NPU’s unmanned Wolf Rider design uses three propulsion methods: a scramjet, pulse detonation and a reusable tri-rocket. Missions would include reconnaissance and launching “hypersonic cruise missiles” with a range of 1,800 miles.
The Wolf Rider itself would fly up to 13,000 miles and reach a maximum speed of 6.5 Mach. The aircraft was described as a “deterrent” to potential adversaries and for protection of “national dignity.”
Perhaps the most complex design was PLAAF’s hypersonic near-space unmanned bomber, intended to modify its structure as it shifts from low speeds to supersonic.
To accelerate to its top speed of Mach 15, it “throws away the host wings.” Primarily intended for strategic bombing, the aircraft might also be used for reconnaissance, early warning, electronic and information warfare, communications relay, command and control, and space defense missions.
The craft might be armed with lasers, microwave weapons and kinetic arms that could hit targets on earth or in orbit.
“Shadow Dragon is a new stage in the PLAAF’s combat design thinking. Its main operational goal is a global quick strike capability,” said the paper’s authors, thus providing a deterrence capability. “If necessary, it can also enter orbit in space and re-enter into near space at ultra-high speeds to close in on a target.”