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The Future of Surveillance: China’s WZ-8 Drone Can Fly 3X Faster Than Sound Over Indo-Pacific

Following a series of major revelations, leaked documents from the US Pentagon on Discord imply that China is preparing to deploy a sophisticated high-altitude spy drone, named ‘WZ-8’, which could travel at triple the speed of sound. The disclosure, which was reported by The Washington Post and is said to be based on a classified document from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, could significantly enhance China’s surveillance capabilities. These drones represent an advanced surveillance system that could aid China in collecting real-time mapping data for planning strategies or executing missile attacks in a future conflict. The report includes satellite images from August 9 that show two rocket-propelled WZ-8 reconnaissance drones at an airbase in eastern China, about 350 miles inland from Shanghai.

The evaluation indicates that China’s Eastern Theater Command, responsible for defending Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan, has “almost certainly” established its first unmanned aerial vehicle unit at the base. According to publicly available satellite imagery from Google Earth and Planet Labs, the facility has expanded over the past few years, with at least 18 new structures built after August 2020, including noticeably larger roads leading into the hills south of the runway that began construction in late February 2022 and are nearly 130 feet wide in some areas. Additionally, leaked documents reveal that the Chinese military is developing technology that could enable it to target American warships and military installations in the region, including those near Taiwan. Other documents disclose Chinese espionage activities and military modernization, such as intelligence showing additional Chinese spy balloons. This is particularly significant as Beijing has recently come under scrutiny for its spying activities. In February of this year, the United States downed what was alleged to be a Chinese spy balloon flying over crucial American military installations, sparking a diplomatic dispute between the two adversaries and escalating tensions to an unprecedented degree.

After the spy balloon controversy between China and the US, reports from the media indicated that China had a specialized and futuristic unit that used high-altitude balloons for espionage. Some reports also claimed that Beijing was conducting surveillance using these balloons. In addition, the Pentagon document disclosed that China had conducted a test of its DF-27 Hypersonic missile in February 2023. The missile flew for 12 minutes, covering a distance of 1,300 miles (2,100 kilometers) and had a high likelihood of penetrating American ballistic missile defense systems. As drone warfare gains greater significance in contemporary military doctrine, details about China’s new drone are especially fascinating. The WZ-8 program was uncovered by The Washington Post from a set of photos of classified documents that a Massachusetts Air National Guard member allegedly leaked on Discord, a popular chat platform for gamers. Beijing unveiled the WZ-8 drones in 2019 when two jet-black aircraft flew past Tiananmen Square to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s founding. At that time, few analysts believed that the drones were fully operational. Two years later, in 2021, China showcased its WZ-8 drone at an air show alongside other state-of-the-art drones such as the GJ-11 prototype and the WZ-7, which have become increasingly popular. The WZ-8 is a reconnaissance UAV designed for high-altitude and high-speed missions, and it is essentially a brand-new aircraft that combines aviation and aeronautic technologies, as previously reported by Global Times.

At the 2021 Air Show, AVIC stated in a Global Times interview that this UAV can obtain high-resolution photographs of targets that are under intense enemy defense and provide useful intelligence and information for all troops to assess battle damage. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s report, accessed by The Washington Post, also contained information about potential flight routes for the drone and the twin-engine H6-M Badger bomber that launched it. The aircraft would depart from its home base and fly to a location just off China’s east coast before deploying the stealth drone. The drone could then enter Taiwanese or South Korean airspace at a height of 100,000 feet and a speed of three times the speed of sound. The document does not specify how the drone is powered, but it states that the engine features are primarily associated with rocket fuel. The proposed flight routes are shown on a map marked as “not necessarily authoritative,” but it suggests possible approaches. The leaked document suggests that the primary island of Taiwan and the western portion of South Korea, including Seoul, are areas where the drone’s electro-optical cameras and sensors could gather intelligence.

Military experts believe that the drone could be used against the US and its military assets and bases in the Pacific if a conflict erupted in the region between the two adversaries. According to Chi Li-pin, director of the aeronautical systems research section at the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, “It’s a weapon for anti-access and area denial.” This is noteworthy because Beijing already has a highly sophisticated A2/AD system along its shores, which is believed to give the country a significant home advantage in the event of a war. Military experts have cautioned that China and the US may go to war if the former launched an attack on Taiwan. Although the aircraft does not appear to be designed for offensive purposes at present, Chi pointed out that modifications could enable it to do so in the future. “It is difficult to detect and intercept,” he said.

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