Monday, 17 January 2022

Operational Failure: The CH-4B’s Short-Lived Career In Jordan

By Stijn Mitzer
As the number of nations operating unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) grows larger and larger each year, Jordan retired its entire inventory of UCAVs some two years after they first entered service. At the center of this drastic move was the performance of the country's fleet of six Chinese-made CH-4B armed drones, which's unreliability, incompatibility with other Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) assets and apparent inability to operate under jamming environments caused the RJAF to put them up for sale after barely seeing any operational use. [1]
Jordan acquired its first CH-4Bs in 2016, with six examples eventually entering service with 9 Squadron operating out of King Abdullah II air base with detachments to Zarqa air base (Sahel Nesab) and H4 Ruwaished air base. [2] Before purchasing the CH-4B, Jordan had initially been eying an armed version of the Italian Falco EVO, which's production ultimately did not come to fruition. [3] Although the United States proved willing to provide Jordan with the unarmed version of the MQ-1 Predator, the Predator XP, it refused to deliver any UAV types that could be armed. [3]

With little other opportunities to acquire UCAVs, Jordan turned to the only country that was willing to to supply it with armed drones at that time: China. Unlike the CH-4Bs acquired by Iraq in 2015, Jordan's examples were outfitted with satellite communications (SATCOM), enabling them to operate at ranges in excess of 1,500 kilometres. [1] Acquired along with the type were significant quantities of AR-1 air-to-ground missiles (AGMs) and FT-9 guided bombs, the latter of which can be seen mounted on one of the four wing pylons in the header image. 
Already in November 2018 the Jordanian Air Force disclosed that it was not happy with the CH-4B's performance and was looking to retire them. [1] After their decommissioning in early 2019, the CH-4Bs were put up for sale. [1] Although it was originally reported that all six examples were sold to the Libyan National Army of warlord Khalifa Haftar, which received significant support from Jordan, the true fate of the drones still remains a mystery. [4] The most plausible scenario is that they were sold to Saudi Arabia, which already operates a large fleet of CH-4Bs (unlike the LNA).

Saudi Arabia similarly appears to have run into issues in operating its CH-4Bs. [5] Common problems encountered reportedly include a lack of servicing and maintenance documentation and no spare part inventory or ordering system. [5] The same type fared little better in Iraq, with eight of its 20 CH-4Bs crashing within a timespan of just a few years while the twelve remaining examples are currently languishing in a hangar with a lack of spare parts. [6] [7] Algeria, yet another operator of the CH-4B, lost three CH-4Bs to crashes in a matter of months. [8]

After the retirement of the CH-4B, the RJAF has fallen back on the use of manned aircraft for reconnaissance, target acquisition and precision airstrikes. The only UAV type currently operational with the Jordanian Armed Forces is the VTOL Schiebel S-100 Camcopter UAS, less than ten of which are believed to remain active. [9] Jordan also used to operate a fleet of four Italian Selex Falco UAVs acquired in the early to mid 2010s. It was reported that at least two Jordanian Falco UAVs were shot down during operations over southern Syria, and the surviving examples were quietly phased out in late 2017 or early 2018. [10] [2]

A Jordanian Falco seen over Daraa, Syria in 2017.

The precision strike role of the CH-4Bs was taken over by six AT-802Us donated by the United Arab Emirates in 2013. Four more AT-802Us diverted from an order originally intended for Yemen were also taken on strength by the Jordanian Air Force in 2016. The ten AT-802Us are equipped with Wescam MX 15 forward-looking infrared (FLIR) turrets and can be armed with AGM-114 Hellfire AGMs and GBU-12 and GBU-58 laser-guided bombs. Given the AT-802U's significant loiter time of some ten hours, its advanced sensor suite and modern precision-guided weapons, it can be argued that Jordan is ultimately better off operating the AT-802U.

The fact that Jordan preferred to dispose of its CH-4Bs - in turn leaving no MALE UAVs in service with the country - rather than continuing to operate the type could indicate that their issues were simply too severe to resolve. Although Chinese UCAVs have seen combat use in service with a number of countries, most notably over Libya, Nigeria and Yemen, their performance often left much to be desired. [5] [6] Several countries that have acquired Chinese-made UCAVs have recently switched to Turkish-made UAVs, most notably the Bayraktar TB2.
Although the Jordanian Air Force has managed to compensate for the retirement of the CH-4Bs through the acquisition of several aircraft types equipped with FLIR systems and precision-guided munitions, it is not unthinkable that the country will one day attempt to introduce an armed drone capability again. After the CH-4B fiasco it appears unlikely that Jordan is again to turn to China for their acquisition, and with the U.S. so far unwilling to provide armed drones to the country, the United Arab Emirates or Turkey could pose as alternative sources.

[9] Royal Jordanian Air Force: Fit for the Fight
[10] Drones Are Dropping Like Flies From the Sky Over Syria