China Appears Set To Unveil Very High-Speed Drone During Big Military Parade In Beijing

The drone is similar to ones that have been spotted in satellite images in recent years, which could indicate it is approaching an operational state.

byTyler Rogoway|
China photo


The 70th anniversary of the founding of communist China will be marked by a huge military parade that will pass through Beijing's Tiananmen Square on October 1st. In preparation for this massive event, parade rehearsals are underway under extremely tight security. These rehearsals have included a number of previously unrevealed weapon systems. The one that has caught our eye the most is a wedge-shaped aircraft that appears to be a very high-speed drone.

Although we have to note that this is speculative and based on the limited information available, the shape of this does not appear to be new. Satellite images have been floating around showing a similar platform for a number of years, with the best image emerging last year from the PLAAF airbase near Malan in Xinjiang province. The image shows a number of drones laid out on a ramp area. All are known aside from the wedge-shaped one., which did a writeup on the image when it first surfaced, estimated its dimensions as 40 feet long by roughly 18 feet wide. 

The rumor of the potential existence of a number of increasingly complex, high-supersonic, or even hypersonic developmental Chinese drones goes back the better part of a decade. has kept a close eye on developments in this shadowy space and has uncovered a number of patents that match the planform in question. A number of flight tests likely supports the existence of this craft, and possibly its developmental progenitors, which would be just one of multiple extremely high-speed weapons capabilities China is developing. It's thought that the craft is launched from an H-6 bomber, or at least was for testing. 

How successful this system was or what state it currently is in operationally speaking is unknown, but the fact that China may be about to parade it around is indicative of it at least approaching an operational state. As far as what it does, it isn't clear. It could be a survivable reconnaissance drone that can rapidly collect regional intelligence without being tied to the predictable orbits of satellites. In fact, it would be even more useful if those satellites were outright destroyed or disabled during a conflict, which is an increasingly real possibility. On the other hand, it could be a high-supersonic or even hypersonic cruise missile, or even a strike asset that can be reused, or both. It just isn't clear at this time.

China's high-end unmanned combat air vehicle ambitions are something we have been following very closely in recent years. This is not the only indication of a Chinese unmanned system that is capable of greater than subsonic speeds. In June of 2018, The War Zone reported on China's supersonic fighter-like drone program. So, the country clearly has a multi-layered advanced unmanned aircraft development strategy, with the very high-speed drone that is being wheeled around Beijing likely sitting at the top of that organization chart performance-wise. Even if this craft is part of a larger, ongoing, evolutionary research and development initiative, it's still a significant development.

Some will comment that the aircraft in question looks like a Lockheed D-21 drone. That is somewhat true and it is also a fact that China was able to recover the wreckage of the last operational D-21 flight that was lost over the country nearly five decades ago. Whatever information they could glean from that wreckage likely influenced not just this aircraft's design, but pretty much all of the country's indigenous high-performance aircraft programs that came after it. So it is unlikely to be any sort of a copy, although the D-21's influence may be present. 

The high-speed drone is not the only surprise in store for the parade on October 1st. A subsonic unmanned combat air vehicle will be displayed as will be an unmanned underwater vehicle. This is in addition to other new weapons, like multiple-launch rocket systems and missile systems. 

There could also be a surprise in the air. China has a number of major, but secretive aerospace programs, including two bombers, that are deep development. Rumors have swirled that one of the bombers could make an appearance at an event related to the 70th anniversary of the PRC's founding. 

We will keep you up to date as to new information regarding exactly what China is planning to unveil during its big and heavily militarized birthday bash on October 1st.

Update: 12:00am PDT—

I was giving it some thought and a second alternative is that this craft could be a supersonic target drone that may even have a secondary reconnaissance potential/function. Having a very high-speed target drone to test against China's increasingly capable SAM systems and air-to-air missiles would be very beneficial. Just something to think about, although I find it far less likely than what is described above. 

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