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Last Saturday, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic touted the delivery of six Chinese-built CH-92A combat drones (UCAVs) for service with the Serbian military in a ceremony at a military airfield at Batajnica.
Serbia’s acquisition of the CASC CH-92 makes it the first European state to deploy Chinese combat drones, reflecting Belgrade’s deepening relationship with Beijing and its plans to domestically manufacture its own armed drones.
Already, armed drones like the Chengdu Wing Loong II drone and CASC CH-4 have proliferated in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and played a significant role in armed conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and Yemen.
The Cai Hong (Rainbow) drones arrived on July 1 via an Il-78 cargo plane, along with eighteen FT-8C laser-guided missiles. The six drones constitute two complete systems or batteries. Each three-drone battery is controlled via remote video terminals and operators stations installed in a domestic six-wheel FAP-2228 trucks
Three or six more CH-92As are expected by the end of 2020, and the Chinese Global Times claims up to 24 CH-92As in total may eventually be delivered.
Reflecting China’s no-questions-asked approach to arms sales, the publication notes “…China does not attach political conditions to arms sales, unlike some countries such as the US.”
Just as importantly, China is also transferring technology to enable Serbia to domestically manufacture its own UCAVs. Key technologies likely include the laser-guidance system of the missiles, and hardening of the drone’s various components against enemy countermeasures.
Belgrade expressed interest in acquiring larger Wing Loong II drones earlier in 2018. However, in November 2019 it instead announced it would purchase the CH-92A. Vucic earlier floated a figure of $30 million dollars for Chinese drones, though the final cost of the CH-92s has not been made public .
This is becoming a modern way of warfare. In that respect we lacked the capability and had no chance whatsoever to compete with more serious countries…For the time being we have 18 missiles, and we will buy more, they are not expensive, but these are the best weapons. This was shown during the warfare in Yemen and Saudi Arabia – solely by means of unmanned aerial vehicles, with no human casualties [except for those targeted], but the results are the most powerful and you deliver the hardest blow to your potential enemy
Vucic also announced plans procure twelve domestic Pegaz-011 drones, which will become combat-capable thanks to the tech transfer. Serbian scientists are currently in China to study the technology.
The CH-92A is a tactical-level reconnaissance/attack drone with a command link effective up to 155 miles and an endurance exceeding eight hours. It can fly up to 16,400 feet (higher than certain short-range air defense systems can reach), and up to a maximum speed of 124 miles per hour.
A CH-92 battery can be deployed in the field in around an hour, and the drone’s tricycle landing gears allows it to take off from an unprepared field or highway. It can also be recovered by parachute if necessary.
According to Serbian military website Tango 6, the drone’s maximum payload of 165 pounds can encompass up to two FT-8 missiles as well as sensors carried in a turret under the nose including day/night thermal cameras (viewing range of 8-12 miles depending on time of day), laser rangefinder and targeter with a range of around 8 miles, and a Moving Target Indicator for tracking vehicle targets.
The FT-8C is a 44-pound laser-guided missile with a range of up to 5.5 miles. Deliveries of smaller, 17.6-pound FT-18D missiles with a range of 3 miles are also anticipated.
Though the CH-92’s attack capabilities against moving targets have drawn the most attention, it’s primary role will remain reconnaissance. It may be most useful as an artillery spotting platform that could locate and lase enemy positions to direct deadly strikes using guided munitions.
Though the CH-92 is likely to be comparatively cheap to procure and cost-efficient to operate, Chinese drones have in some cases appeared prone to reliability issues . In January 2020, a CH-92A suffered an accident and parachute-landed in southern Cambodia, giving rise to intense speculation as to what it was doing there.
Serbia, Balkan Drone Power
The CH-92s will likely serve in a reconstituted 353rd Intelligence Surveillance squadron, a unit which in earlier incarnations operated American RF-84G Thunderjets, Soviet MiG-21 variants, and domestically-built SOKO J-21 and J-22 jets. Thus the squadron encapsulates Belgrade’s long history as independent power willing to acquire weapons from both East and West, as well as manufacturing its own.
Serbia still smarts from the conflicts of the 1990s, particularly the bombardment by NATO in 1999 begun in response to an ethnic cleansing campaign targeting Kosovar Albanians. While Serbia’s military today participates in both Russian and NATO exercises, it is not a member of the latter alliance and retains cordial ties with Moscow, which supported it politically during the Kosovo war.
Belgrade has also drawn closer to Beijing, particularly in the wake of the COVID pandemic, even as it seeks accession to the European Union, its primary commercial partners.
The Serbian military may have kept in mind that the U.S. Predator drone saw its successful combat debut over Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s, albeit confined to a surveillance role.
In 2011, as part of a broader military modernization effort, the Serbian Military Technical Institute test flew a domestic tactical reconnaissance drone named the Pegaz-011, which is smaller than but has a similar twin-boom and pusher-engine configuration to the CH-92.
The 265-pound Pegaz (Pegasus) can carry up to 88 pounds of mission equipment (typically sensors), has a range of 62 miles, an endurance of 12 hours, and service ceiling of 9,840 feet. The Pegaz’s avionics include automated takeoff, landing and return-to-base capability.
Now with the tech transfer from China, weapons-capable Pegaz-011 drones are expected by the end of 2020.
Assistant minister Nenad Miloradovic also reportedly stated that Serbia had plans to indigenously develop a new UCAV larger than the CH-92, as well as its own domestic laser-guided missiles for mounting on drones.
Belgrade’s plans to field two or three dozen combat drones in the next few years, would make it by far the largest military drone operator in the region. It is difficult to foresee whether that will affect the often nationalistic politics of the Balkans and the ongoing competition for influence there between Europe, Russia, and China.