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China is developing a new drone that uses ground effect technology to skim the surface of the ocean. There were social media reports that China has been developing a hybrid anti-ship drone-missile, after a photo and details about the weapon surfaced recently. According to thedrive.com, the system is centered around a wing-in-ground-effect optimized airframe—a concept made famous by the Soviet Union’s enigmatic Ekranoplans, and in particular, the giant Caspian Sea Monster.
Ground effect craft can efficiently skim very low over the ground at high speeds by leveraging the decreased drag and increased lift that occurs as a result of an aircraft’s wings interacting with the air directly above the planet’s surface.
Although some were quick to think this weapon system is some sort of an elaborate unmanned combat air vehicle, it seems pretty clear that it is far more expendable missile than anything else. After being launched from a shore battery, it would likely skim out to a target area at relatively high speed and very-low altitude. Then its onboard radar seeker would search for and prosecute an end-game attack solution of its target much like a standard anti-ship cruise missile. It would then slam into a ship and detonate what would be a far larger payload of explosives than a traditional anti-ship missile would carry.
The weapon is supposedly designed to fly as low as three feet above the water’s surface for an hour and a half, and deliver a whopping 2,200-pound explosive payload onto its target. Overall, the weapon weighs 6,600 lbs fully loaded.
Such system could offer another threat layer to China’s multi-tiered naval defense capability, while at the same time being not too dissimilar to its existing shore-based anti-ship missile defenses. Where this system differentiates itself is likely in its range, payload—and to some degree, its detectability during its midcourse phase of flight.
The Soviet Union’s Ekranoplans, and especially the Caspian Sea Monster, have elevated the once obscure technology to near mythical levels: Because the system blends unmanned air vehicle, missile, and wing-in-ground-effect concepts, it can use lift to drastically increase its range and increase its overall size and load carrying capability compared to its traditional missile counterparts. This means more fuel and a larger explosive payload can be carried.
Most importantly, normal anti-ship missiles fly anywhere from low to high altitudes during their flight out to the target area, before dropping down to very low altitude for their terminal attack run—skimming over the horizon at their target and thus giving said target’s defenses little time to react.
This hybrid system would presumably stay at extremely low altitude throughout its entire flight profile following launch. Although the air is thick at low altitudes and drag is high, the wing-in-ground-effect design overcomes that drawback by providing copious amounts of lift and a “cushion” of air below the craft as it rips across the ocean’s surface.
By staying so low throughout its flight, this missile-drone of sorts would remain harder to detect than higher-flying traditional missile systems.
Photo – for illustration.