The key Chinese armed drone, CH 4 B, deployed with the Royal Air Force Oman (RAFO) has been grounded due to a serious bug in the newly installed computer software programming of the flight control system. The Chinese refused to allow the air force to revert to the older version of the software raising serious questions of operational security of these drones. These drones were sold by Chinese firm, Aerospace Long-March International Co., Ltd (ALIT), the core subsidiary of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).
Although the drones have now been reinstalled with older versions of the software, there are serious issues with flight safety, technical snags during flight, adversely affecting the drone’s operational capability. According to official notes, the Royal Air Force Oman had written to ALIT in June this year stating that they had agreed to update the older version of the software only on the assurance that these have been tested and found to be operational in China and other countries. Both the countries had also agreed to revert to the older version if the new software caused operational problems. During the trial in Oman, the drones exhibited serious defects in the Heads Up Display (HUD). There were at least two incidents of complete blackout of the HUD which made the drone inoperable. Likewise, there were deficiencies in running the autoground check.
These drones have proved to be a serious headache for other countries which had imported them from China. Among the affected countries are Pakistanis who suffered the most from defective Chinese drones. While buying these armed drones from China, Pakistan forces boasted of giving `nightmares` to Indian ground formations in high altitude areas. But the Chinese firms, with their pathetic service record, have driven the Pakistanis to the wall. Several critical failures plagued the drone systems. Firstly, the GPS, a pivotal component for armed drones, encountered severe issues. Two out of the three drones repeatedly suffered from GPS failures during test flights, resulting in their grounding. This GPS malfunction can be likened to a heart failure in a human body. Pakistani authorities were keen to ascertain whether the GPS problems were caused by local interference, which could compromise the drones’ anti-jamming capabilities, making them vulnerable during operations.
Equally concerning was the nitrogen leakage from EO/IR cameras mounted on UAVs 1 and 2, rendering the Electro-Optical/Infra-Red (EO/IR) systems non-functional. These imaging systems are crucial for providing complete situational awareness in varying lighting conditions, both day and night. Given their significance, Pakistan Air Force officials urgently requested replacements for the EO/IR pods. However, the Chinese firm had not yet responded to this pressing request. Further issues were detected with the High-Performance Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) on two occasions within ten hours of the drones being put into operation. These radars play a pivotal role in offering advanced geospatial intelligence capabilities in all weather conditions, while also complementing the drone’s Electronic Warfare payload. Malfunctioning SARs render the unmanned aerial vehicles ineffective and unsuitable for operation.
Another critical failure concerned the SATCOM systems in two of the drones. In UAV number 2, the airborne segment of SATCOM failed during launch, while in UAV number 3, SATCOM failed during the take-off stage. On the ground, the SATCOM antenna also failed during the Site Acceptance Test (SAT). The aerial antenna reportedly faced physical constraints during ground checks. Additional defects included the failure of the rear fuel pump in UAV number 1. During repairs, it was discovered that the pump core was faulty and had to be discarded. Surprisingly, the PAF maintenance team found that the core’s specifications differed from those of the spare parts supplied with the drone.
Likewise, the defuelling equipment provided with the drones was found to be inoperable due to contamination, and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is still awaiting its replacement.