New Advances in PLA Battlefield Aerospace and ISR

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 2

Z-9G Attack Helicopter

A profound transformation is taking place in Chinese battlefield aerospace, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLAs) xinxihua zhanchang (informationalized battlefield) program is assisting its armed forces in attaining information domination on the battlefield.   As part of this program, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems are undergoing a complete reorganization and expansion within the PLA. Previously, battlefield reconnaissance was conducted by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), using fighter aircraft modified for reconnaissance.  Cameras used in these missions produced excellent imagery but could not aid the PLA in battle because it took too much time to process and be of any operational value. This has now changed with the PLA’s new capabilities of operating helicopters with thermal imaging systems and UAV’s providing real time data to battlefield commanders.

Advances in the development of Chinese unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) enhance the military’s strategic posture and capabilities.  Long range patrolling of China’s high altitude borders regions in Xinjiang, and to a lesser extent in Tibet, is carried out by border guard patrols in specially designed cross country vehicles pressurized to cope with the lack of oxygen at these heights.  UAVs will enable more effective surveillance and patrolling of these borders, at considerably less cost in manpower and equipment, enabling the border guards to focus more on their tasks and quickly move to an area where the UAV has picked up illegal border crossings.  The PLA has invested heavily in ISR and command and control systems and the introduction of the latest UAVs will enable them to see ‘over the hill’ without having to expose soldiers or aircraft.  Military operations in urban environments and counter-insurgency operations will also be enhanced as UGVs will be able to search buildings for improvised explosive devices as well as for the insurgents.  

Battlefield Aerospace Aviation Units

Battlefield aerospace aviation units in the PLA are divided into manned (helicopters) and UAVs.  UAVs were primarily used as targets for air defense systems but from the mid-1990s small UAVs started to be employed for battlefield reconnaissance and recently for civilian tasks such as surveying disaster areas.   Recently, China started examining the possibility of using UAVs for combat missions.  The provision of battlefield helicopters at present is split between the Army Aviation units in the PLA and the PLAAF, which are both expanding and modernizing.  The PLA is in the process of acquiring its first dedicated attack helicopter, the Chinese developed WZ-10, and the PLAAF is acquiring more modernized Russian Mi-17 helicopters to be built in China [1].  Furthermore, the new WZ-15/EC175 medium helicopter is being built in a 50/50 partnership between the Chinese firm ACIC II and Eurocopter [2], which will supplant and subsequently replace the Z-9 model currently in service. Battlefield UAVs have been used by selected PLA units, primarily special forces, since the mid-1990s for reconnaissance but their wider use is expected with new designs coming into service.

Ground reconnaissance elements units have been upgraded throughout the new brigade structures down to the company level and equipped to provide near real time exploitation of their ISR.  New scout and reconnaissance vehicles have been introduced and the PLA is looking at unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) for future use in reconnaissance and other roles.  

Army Aviation Capabilities

The most common army aviation helicopter is the Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Company Z-9G/W, which is the Eurocopter AS 365N Dauphin II produced under license, and is the most modern helicopter used by the PLA Aviation battalions.  Variants of the Z-9W include dedicated liaison, reconnaissance, utility, anti-tank, command and control and utility variants; with the anti-tank and reconnaissance variants equipped with a nose mounted thermal imaging seeker.   The People’s Armed Police (PAP) also uses a variant of the Z-9 (Beijing Qianlong News Online, April 11, 2005).   It has two pylons that can carry a maximum of either eight Hong Jian-8 anti-tank guided missiles, four Tian Yan 90, two cannon pods or two rocket pods [3]. They are vulnerable to even small arms fire as they lack redundant systems and armor. For counter-terrorist and riot control as well as locating and general police duties, the Z-9 can be equipped with a fixed side facing high intensity white light and dual loud speakers on the left side pylon [4]. The introduction of thermal imaging seekers on Z-9 helicopters has provided PLA commanders with real time ISR assets opening up the battlefield at night and with the ability to locate camouflaged positions from stand off distances during the day.

After the 9-11 attacks on the United States the PLA’s first Army Airborne Regiment was sent to Xinjiang ostensibly to combat Uyghur separatists. The unit was initially equipped with approximately 30 Chinese built Z-9 helicopters (World Journal, October 23, 2001) and its missions were to develop tactics and doctrine for helo-borne operations including night time combat search and rescue, as well as conducting counter terrorist and insurgency missions (Zhuongguo Guofang Bao Online [China National Defense News, 12 December 2004; 4 May 2005).  The unit’s mission profile is similar to a U.S. Army Ranger battalion combined with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne).  The airborne regiment has PLAAF Mi-17 transport helicopters available to provide greater troop lift and fire support.  These are equipped with navigation radar and up-rated engines with an auxiliary power unit to ensure reliable starting at altitudes up to 4,000 meters (m) [5]. It is difficult to establish whether the unit is still in Xinjiang, but 16 Z-9G and 16 Mi-17 helicopters that were self-deployed to Russia for the August 2007 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) exercise ‘Peace Mission 2007’ came from Xinjiang (Eurasia Daily Monitor, July  27, 2007).  

Helicopter Fire Support and ISR

A long standing requirement for a helicopter to provide survivable all weather aerial fire support for both escorting transport helicopters and close air support will be met by the Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC) WZ-10 attack helicopter.  This is China’s first indigenous attack helicopter and is the lynchpin of the PLA Army Aviation’s modernization plans. Besides anti-armor, the WZ-10 will provide escort, armed reconnaissance, and force protection missions, the latter against enemy attack and reconnaissance helicopters and UAVs.  The WZ-10 will give operations staff real-time long range battlefield imagery from its advanced all-weather avionics and targeting systems via data links that can be expected to be part of the avionics system.   

The WZ-10 is in the size and weight range of the Italian A129 Mangusta with many design features copied directly from it, including the cockpit.  The prototype used two Pratt and Whitney Canada PT6C-6TC engines rated at 1,531 horsepower (hp), which equates to 1,142 kilowatts, power the WZ-10. These are subject to the post-Tiananmen embargo so will be replaced before the WZ-10 goes into service.  These give it a top speed of 280 kilometers per hour (km/hr), a cruising speed of 230 km/hr and a maximum range of 800 km.  

The cockpit design has been taken directly from the A129 Mangusta fire control system, using helmet mounted display systems a field of view of 260 degrees horizontally and  from minus 34 to plus 56 degrees at right angles to the cockpit.  The design reduces its infrared signature and the navigation system incorporates GPS/GLOSNASS updates.  The sensor system includes a nose mounted electro-optical laser designator/range finder and a thermal imaging seeker. The systems integration of the navigation, electronic warfare and fire control system will be a challenge for China’s aviation industry.  

The armament comprises a 30mm cannon under the nose similar to the AH-64 Apache, and on its two stub wings it can carry a total of eight Tian Yan 90 air-to-air missiles, or eight Hong Jian-10 anti-tank missiles, or rocket and gun pods.  It incorporates electronic warfare suite includes a radar warning receiver and a chaff/flare dispenser.


The PLAAF uses the Russian Mi-17 transport helicopter, the export designation of the Mi-8MTV-2 helicopter, which incorporates a chin-mounted radar enabling bad weather operations and six sponsons for armament.  In PLA service the armament includes six 57 mm UB-32 rocket pods containing a total of 192 55 mm rockets providing transport helicopters a measure of fire support/defence suppression [6].   During the ill-fated Soviet occupation of Afghanistan the Mi-8 was severely underpowered at high altitudes.   Due to the problems of flying in mountains at high altitudes, resupply helicopters could only fly between five and ten hours.   Often they did not land but dropped the cargo from an altitude of between 5 and 30m at a speed ranging between 20 and 70 km/hr.   The maximum payload never exceeded 400 kg [7].   

The Mi-17 in PLAAF service has two 1,900 hp turbine engines compared to the Mi-8’s engines rated at 1,700 hp.   The Mi-17 helicopter also carries an auxiliary power plant, which feeds the air starters to the engines ensuring reliable starting of the main engines up to 4,000 m depending on the engine type.  Despite the extra power the Mi-8MT/Mi-17MT can only carry six to eight combat laden soldiers dropping to only four or five at 3,000 to 4,000 m [8].  A Russian air assault soldier can carry anywhere from 35 to 40 kg of extra equipment on top of his weapon and uniform [9].  The company says that it can lift 24 combat equipped soldiers at lower altitudes [10].  By comparison, Australian Defense Force CH-47D Chinook transport helicopters deployed in Afghanistan can carry 30 passengers and five tons of cargo [11].

Interestingly no helicopters in the PLA’s service have been seen mounting any type of door gun to provide suppressive fire when the helicopters land during an assault. Providing a machine gun with mount, ammunition and dedicated gunner to provide suppressive fire at high altitudes would severely restrict the amount of personnel or cargo that a Z-9 or Mi-17 helicopter could carry.  The poor performance of helicopters at high altitudes is why the CH-47D Chinook has become the primary helicopter for delivery of cargo and personnel by air in Afghanistan.  

Unmanned Air Vehicles

Chinese industry has developed a wide range of UAVs in recent years used by the PLA—small UAVs have been used by special forces since the mid-1990s (People’s Daily Online, June 19, 2002).  Typical UAVs are the W-50 that reportedly has the ability to loiter over four hours depending on the payload and an operational range of over 100 km; and the Z-3 helicopter UAV, which weighs 130 kg with its 30k payload and incorporates GPS navigation for pre-planned reconnaissance missions [12].  In the recent Sichuan Earthquake at least one Chinese-developed small UAV was deployed to survey the damage [13]. Of pusher configuration with twin booms connecting a ‘V’ shaped rear fin it was 2.1 m long, had a wingspan of 2.6 m and weighed 20 kg.  It can travel at 110km/hr, reach an altitude of 3,500 m and has GPS assisted guidance.   

In November 2008 at the Seventh China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai a mockup of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation’s new CH3 technology demonstrator attack UAV was displayed (People’s Daily Online, November 3, 2008).  It has a tail-less canard design with the flaps mounted on the tips of its rear double delta wings.  The engine and triple blade propeller is mounted in the rear of fuselage like the MQ-1C Warrior developed by the United States and appears similar in size although it incorporates a chisel nose instead of the bulbous nose, which contains a radar in the MQ-1C.  The CH3 utilizes a blended fuselage and incorporates a stabilized targeting turret under the forward fuselage similar to the AN/AAS-52 Multi-spectral Targeting System on the MQ-1C.  There is a large pylon under each rear wing, which on the mockup, mounted a missile similar is size and shape to the AGM-65 Maverick.

Also on display was a reconnaissance UAV, similar is size to the Israeli Aerospace Industries’ Scout [14].  Employing skids instead of wheels, implying it is catapult launched, it is most likely employed to locate targets for artillery units.  Mechanized and armored units have not been neglected as the PLA has type certified an armored tracked launcher, based on the ZSD 89 armored command vehicle, using a modified low profile turret from the WZ731.  This incorporates flat transmitter panels on the turret roof, with a compressed gas catapult for a small UAV mounted on top [15].  

Battlefield Unmanned Ground Vehicles [16]

The PLA is also looking at unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) for use on the battlefield and for high risk missions like explosive ordnance disposal and clearing buildings.  The two vehicles that appear most suitable for the ISR role are the ASENDRO and the CHRYSOR.  UGV’s not being manned are especially vulnerable to terrain obstacles and light anti-tank weapons and anti-materiel (military equipment) rifles.

The ASENDRO is a small UAV being 600mm long with a chassis height of 400 mm high and weighing 45 kg.  There are both wheeled and tracked versions, with the tracked version able to travel at 10 km/hr, climb a 400 slope and cross over a 200 mm high obstacle.  The vehicle is capable of carrying mast mounted cameras and a rotating arm on the forward half of the chassis.  It uses a 24/27 volt circuit and operates up to four hours.  The ASENDRO Scout, a dedicated reconnaissance version, carries an 18 x camera operating in the 7 to 14 micron bandwidth and having an operating angle of 500 x 350.  

The CHRYSOR is a large amphibious UGV, which looks similar to the British Argocat 8 x 8 logistics vehicle.  It is 2.92 m long, 1.64 m wide and has a chassis height of 1.92 m.  It weighs 950kg and its 31 hp (22.79 kW) gives it a maximum road speed of 45 km/hr and a speed in water of 4 km/hr.  It can operate up to 12 hours and it has a payload of 680 kg on ground which drops to 300 kg if it needs to cross water.  It can climb a 370 slope, a 1m trench and climb over a 0.4 m obstacle.  It carries ten fixed cameras on the chassis for movement and can carry a multifunction mast depending on the mission.  The prototype vehicle can be driven if necessary and some of the versions envisaged keep the optional drivers position [17].  Two versions mooted for the ISR role are as a communications repeater in remote areas, which would be extremely useful in high altitudes and as a reconnaissance vehicle in counter–terrorist and urban warfare.  This version carries three banks of five high intensity lights to illuminate an area.  

To exploit all these new sources of information, and to prevent information overload, the new brigades and battalions contain their own intelligence net that shares battlefield information. A dedicated reconnaissance officer is located at the brigade headquarters to ensure no duplication of assets or missions (PLA Daily Online, September 16, 2008).  The battalion reconnaissance teams have man portable battlefield radar and night observation equipment coupled with a data link offering the commander a real time picture of the battlefield from the soldiers view as well as from the sky (PLA Daily Online, November 19, 2008).  


The drive for information dominance on the battlefield has seen the PLA modernize its ISR assets.  Chinese industry has, and is, developing a range of battlefield UAVs that the PLA is now deploying.  Helicopters have been equipped with the ability to operate at night, which denies enemies night-time sanctuary.  The introduction of armed UAVs and a new dedicated attack helicopter will enable the PLA to conduct high tempo 24 hour operations.   Their ability to assist in disaster relief has already been established, freeing helicopters to perform medical evacuation and supply missions.  UGVs are just coming into service and as they are further developed the PLA will find new ways to utilize them.  Besides reconnaissance over minefields and booby trapped terrain, they can be used to search for earthquake victims as well as for ordnance disposal. 


1. Sichuan Lantian Helicopter Co. Ltd, 3 January 2009, accessed 3 January 2009.
2. ‘Eurocopter Creates a New Helicopter in a Cooperative Venture with China’, Eurocopter website, http//, 5 December 2005, accessed 3 January 2009.
3. ‘Da zaozong hezhao zhangxinglui hangbudui’, (Building an All-Round Army Aviation Force)  Xiandai junshizao (CONMILIT), 2/2004, Number 325, pp. 10 & 11.
4. ‘Zhongguo luhang zhijiu wuzhuang zhishengji’, (Chinese Joint Low Flying Hostage Rescue Military Helicopter) poster inserted in Bingqi Zhishi, 10A/2008, Number 254.  
5. Lavrentiev, A.P.  The International Workhorse – the Mi-17, located on the Kazan Helicopter Production Association website:, accessed 26 February 2003.
6. Dolgov, S.   ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’, in Roshchin, S; Reznichenko, S & Saoylyuk, S. ‘War Doesn’t Sleep’, ArmeyskiySbornik, October 2000, p. 59;
7. Grau, L.W & Gress, Michael A. (eds).   The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost: the Russian General Staff, University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, 2002, p. 287.
8. Grau, L.W.  The Bear Went over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan, Foreign Military Studies office, Fort Leavenworth, 2005, p. 101.   
9. Ibid., p. 97.
10. ‘Mi-8/Mi-17 Hip – Multi-Mission helicopter’, Army Technology, accessed 10 November 2008
11. Walters, Patrick. Hard-working Chinooks the pack horse of the frontline’ in ‘Special Report on Defence’, Weekend Australian, 29 & 30 November 2008, p. 3.
12. Wu Xiaochun, ‘NRIST Keeps Forging Ahead – Part II’, Military Training & Simulation News, Volume 5, Issue 6, November 2003, pp. 54 & 55.
13. "Hua ying" aoxiang kangzhen jiuzai’, (“Golden Eagle” Seismic defense soaring and helping people in a disaster) Bingqi Zhishi (Ordinance Knowledge), 7/2008, Number 249, pp. 20 & 21.
14. Ibid.; ‘Older UAVs’, Israeli Aerospace Industries Ltd website, 4 January 2008,, accessed 4 January 2009.
15. ‘Xinxihua zhanchang shangde zhuangjia ‘qianliyan’," Zhongguo WZ731 xingludai shi tongyong zhuangjia zhencha che’, (Informationalized Battlefield Increasing with the Armored “Thousand li eye” Chinese Type WZ731 Tracked Multi-Purpose Armored Scout Vehicle) Tanke Zhuangjia Cheliang (Tank and Armored Vehicle), 7/2008, Number 269, pp. 12 – 15.
16. ‘Jiqi xiongdi zongdongyuan’, (Motorized Big and Small Versions Gathered and Mobilized) Bingqi Zhishi, (Ordnance Knowledge) 8A/2008, Number 250, pp. 22 – 25.
17. ‘Youren "wuren zhijing” Zhongguo Bingqi 218 chang tuichu xinxing dimian wuren pingtai’, (As if Manned “Unmanned Condition” Chinese Ordnance Factory 218 has Pushed Development of New Model Ground Unmanned Platforms)   Tanke Zhuangjia Cheliang (Tank and Armored Vehicle), 8/2008, Number 270, pp. 5 – 7.