Monday 6 December 2021

Turkmenistan’s Freak UCAV: The WJ-600A/D

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Turkmenistan operates a number of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs acquired from China. Apart from the ubiquitous CH-3A, which has also been exported to Nigeria, Algeria, Myanmar and Pakistan, the Turkmenistan Air Force also acquired a unique drone design that has yet to enter service with any other country in the world: The WJ-600A/D. This unconventional unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) is one of the few armed drones in the world that performs a rocket-assisted take-off (RATO), subsequently landing by parachute after completing its mission.
Arguably looking more like a cruise missile than an actual UCAV, the WJ-600A/D trades in a conventional UCAV design for increased speed, which is achieved through a turbofan engine instead of the turboprop engine found on most other UCAV designs worldwide. This enables the WJ-600A/D to attain an impressive speed of up to 700km/h compared to just some 200km/h for the CH-3A. [1] That said, its endurance of some three to five hours falls far short of that of the CH-3A, which has an endurance of roughly 12 hours. [1] The resulting operational ranges are not too dissimilar, but since UCAVs are often expected to loiter above the battlefield patrolling or looking for targets of opportunity, the WJ-600A/D evidently fills a somewhat distinct niche.
The WJ-600A/D is a progressive development of the CASIC HW-600 Sky Hawk (WJ-600), and is capable of carrying out both reconnaissance and ground attack missions. Although not visible on the examples paraded by Turkmenistan, the WJ-600A/D comes equipped with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) turret under its fuselage. The resulting design appears geared towards conducting strike missions deep inside enemy territory, relying on its speed and small cruise missile like-RCS (radar-cross section) to evade detection.
China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) has remained largely in the backdrop due to the success of CASC and CAIG, who develop the CH-series and Wing Loong-series of UCAVs respectively. The sale of WJ-600A/Ds to Turkmenistan is the only known export success for CASIC, although it's unknown how many examples it ultimately managed to sell. In 2018, CASIC unveiled the jet-powered WJ-700 UCAV, which pairs the speed and low RCS of the WJ-600A/D with a more conventional design while still boasting an impressive payload capacity.

The WJ-600A/D can be armed with up to two CM-502KG air-to-surface missiles (AGMs). The CM-502KG is a heavier and longer-ranged variant of the AR-1B/AR-2 AGM, featuring an 11kg warhead and a maximum range of up to 25 km. It seems likely that other armament can be integrated on the WJ-600A/D as well, although it's currently unknown if Turkmenistan acquired any additional weapons systems besides the CM-502KG. It's plausible that the smaller AR-1 AGM that arms the CH-3A UCAV in Turkmen service can also arm the WJ-600A/D.

Another Chinese-made UAV in Turkmen service that uses a rocket assist system to take off is the S300-series of target drones (not to be confused with the S-300 SAM system). Numerous of these were acquired alongside ASN-9s to act as targets for FM-90, KS-1A and FD-2000 SAM systems purchased from the same source in the mid-2010s. In Turkmen service, the S300s and ASN-9s replaced the limited numbers of Soviet-era La-17 target drones that still remained operational. These too were launched using a RATO booster under each wing root.

An S300 seconds before its launch during an air defence exercise in Turkmenistan.

A WJ-600A/D gets propelled into the air.

While initially relying on Chinese-made types like the WJ-600A/D, CH-3A and Busel MB2s from Belarus to build up its armed UAV capabilities, Turkmenistan has recently turned to Israel and Turkey for the acquisition of additional armed drones. [2] [3] Its deal with Turkey even included the construction of an air base designed specifically with UAV operations in mind, the first such base in the region. [2] These purchases make the acquisition of more Chinese-made UCAVs unlikely for the foreseeable future. Still, the WJ-600A/Ds will continue to soldier on as one of the more unique combat drone designs currently out there, offering Turkmenistan a particular brand of capabilities not many countries can replicate.