US satellites make another sighting of China’s WZ-8 supersonic drone
US-based Defence News releases image of UAV parked at Luan airbase in eastern China. The drone’s stealth and supersonic capabilities make it a natural target of American interest, analyst says.
China’s WZ-8 supersonic drone has resurfaced in American satellite imagery, with a US-based defence website releasing a new photo of one of the unmanned aerial vehicles parked at an upgraded military base in eastern China.
The satellite image shows what appears to be a WZ-8 reconnaissance drone parked outside one of two newly built hangars at the Luan airbase in Anhui province.
The image was provided by Planet Labs, an American public Earth-imaging company, and was dated December 21.
Last month, an image dated August 9 from a trove of leaked classified US military documents showed two WZ-8s parked at the same airbase.
The document was reported by The Washington Post in April and initially posted on group chat service Discord, allegedly by a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard.
According to the document, the WZ-8 could fly at Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, at an altitude of 100,000 feet (30km).
It also showed two potential flight paths for the drone and the twin-engined H6-M bomber used to launch it.
The image plotted the aircraft taking off from the Luan base, the bomber releasing the WZ-8 off mainland China’s east coast and the drone flying into Taiwanese or South Korean airspace.
The People’s Liberation Army has highlighted the importance of drones in its military exercises around Taiwan and the unmanned aerial vehicles are expected to play a crucial role in surveillance, blockades, strikes and assassinations in possible missions against the island.
The WZ-8 made its debut in the National Day parade in Beijing on October 1, 2019. At the time it was described simply as a “high-altitude, high-speed reconnaissance drone”, with no details of its specifications.
By the time it went on display at AirShow China in Zhuhai in 2021, it had entered service in the PLA Air Force and had cutting-edge reconnaissance and battle damage assessment abilities, according to state media.
State broadcaster CCTV quoted Chinese military expert Du Wenlong as saying the WZ-8 could “play unique roles in large-scale and high-speed reconnaissance in areas surrounding the country in the future”.
It could precisely position targets including aircraft carriers and pose challenges to the opponent’s air defence system that “it could not be either detected or intercepted”, Du said in a 2021 report.
Song Zhongping, a military commentator and former PLA instructor, said it was “natural” that the US would pay attention to the WZ-8, given the drone’s stealth and supersonic capabilities, as well as rising concern about PLA’s advanced combat strength.
“This UAV features stealth and high-speed, which means its penetration capability is powerful, and it is difficult for the opponent to intercept and detect it,” Song said.