New images have surfaced on the web of a supersonic reconnaissance drone Chinese officials unveiled for their upcoming military parade on October 1. The images show the general shape of the drone hidden beneath camouflage netting, but that was all most military historians needed to see for something to start smelling fishy.
China has a long and illustrious history of stealing foreign military technology for its own uses. Of course, the Chengdu J-20, China’s premiere stealth fighter, is widely believed to have been based on stolen Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor plans, just as China’s forthcoming J-31 appears to be a direct rip off of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; But that’s just the tip of the counterfeit iceberg when it comes to Chinese air power.
China’s J-10 was based on unfinished plans for the Israeli Lavi fighter (which was based on America’s F-16). Their J-11 is just a rebadged Russian Su-27, and their J-15 was based on a copy of an unfinished Russian Su-33 prototype sourced through Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union. The list goes on, and now, some content, there may be a new addition. The new drone, dubbed the DR-8, is said to be an unmanned supersonic platform that would play a role in aiding China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles with finding their targets in the vast expanse of the Pacific. It’s streamlined shape and high-speed capabilities suggest that it may be a high-flying platform that relies on ramjet, or even scramjet, propulsion to achieve and maintain such high speeds. This all sounds like cutting edge technology… except that America had a high-flying, ramjet powered, supersonic spy drone that looked an awful lot like this already flying missions over China way back in the 1960s.
How could China have possibly stolen plans for a forty-year-old classified project? Well, it wasn’t all that hard — they had one handy in the Beijing Aviation Museum. You see, after the Soviet Union successfully shot down a U-2 Spy Plane, the U.S. set to work on new ways to gather the reconnaissance they needed over Russia and China. So they used elements of the A-12 program (which would lead to the SR-71) to develop a supersonic, high altitude drone that was initially launched from the back of a specially modified A-12 before going in operational service mounted under the wing of a B-52, using a rocket booster to help it achieve the speed and altitude necessary for its ramjet motor to function properly.
In all, the Air Force launched four D-21 missions over China. Two of the aircraft successfully traversed 3,000 miles at altitudes in excess of 90,000 feet and at speeds higher than Mach 3, snapping pictures all along the way. They were then supposed to eject their film canisters and self-destruct, but in both of those instances, the film proved unrecoverable. Two other D-21 flights outright failed, with one going missing shortly after launch and another shot down by Chinese air defenses. The remains of one of those classified D-21s eventually found its way into a museum.
Of course, this isn’t to suggest that China simply copied this forty-year-old Lockheed design for their own drone, but it seems entirely plausible they borrowed heavily from an already successful supersonic platform when designing their own. After all, China has already demonstrated a willingness to adopt foreign technology (gained through any means necessary) into their military programs — why would they stop now? After all, it wouldn’t even be the first drone that appeared to be a direct copy of American tech in the last 12 months.