China 'flies first stealth drone' - reports

"The fear for everybody here is that some small misstep could actually trigger a bigger incident", reports Martin Patience in Beijing

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China successfully flew a stealth drone for the first time on Thursday, state media said, citing eyewitness reports.

A drone, called "Sharp Sword" by the media, made a test flight for around 20 minutes in Chengdu, reports said.

China has been developing stealth aircraft in recent years, including J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters.

In September, an unmanned drone flew close to a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea, raising tensions with Japan.

Analysis

China's UAV industry is of importance for two main reasons. Firstly, there are the new capabilities that such drones provide for China's rapidly modernising armed forces.

Secondly, fewer technology export controls and price may give Beijing the edge in spreading such technology around the world.

The two leading players in the drone club - the US and Israel - have developed UAVs for a variety of purposes. These range from intelligence-gathering to strikes against targets on the ground. Not surprisingly, China sees UAVs in exactly the same light.

UAVs are also an easy way to demonstrate presence in a disputed zone. China is believed to have converted a number of out-of-date J-6 fighters into UAVs, which may well be being used to monitor the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

Following that incident, Japan said it would shoot down unmanned aircraft in Japanese airspace.

China's defence ministry said that any attempt by Japan to shoot down Chinese aircraft would constitute "an act of war".

"The successful flight shows the nation has again narrowed the air-power disparity between itself and Western nations," state-run newspaper China Daily said on Friday.

The BBC's defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus says China is joining a small elite club of nations that includes the US, Israel, France and the UK, who are pushing the boundaries of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology.

Our correspondent says that what is clear from recent air shows and the Chinese technical press is that Beijing has developed a variety of UAVs matching virtually every category deployed by the US.

They range from small tactical drones of limited endurance to much larger systems that look strikingly like US Reaper or Predator models, and just like their US counterparts some of these Chinese drones are equipped with hard-points on their wings to carry munitions.

This comes as China pours money into its military making its neighbours in the region nervous, BBC Beijing correspondent Martin Patience says.

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