By Mike Yeo
May 19, 12:21 AM
This satellite image is from Planet Labs. Defense News annotated the image. (Planet Labs)
MELBOURNE, Australia — A satellite image obtained by Defense News shows what appears to be a WZ-8 supersonic reconnaissance drone parked outside one of two newly built hangars at China’s Lu’an Airbase.
China is continuing to revamp a bomber base that was identified in recently leaked U.S documents as hosting a new supersonic reconnaissance drone.
The satellite image, provided to Defense News by Planet Labs, shows Lu’an Airbase in China’s Anhui province. The previously unoccupied base is undergoing an upgrade, with construction beginning sometime between April 2018 and early 2019. Improvements include the resurfacing of the 3,200-meter (3,500-yard) runway, the widening of taxiways, and the construction of 20 bomber-sized aircraft shelters and two hangars to replace open aircraft parking bays.
China also built munitions checkout facilities on base, according to Decker Eveleth, a student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey who reviewed the satellite photo given to Defense News. Eveleth explained that such checkout facilities are used to inspect munitions before they’re loaded onto aircraft for use.
These buildings are usually found at bases for bombers and ground-launched missiles, Eveleth added, and tend to be “long, tall buildings with doors at both ends,” with missiles usually fixed to a rail for inspection at various stations for examining various components.
Lu’an Airbase is home to the 29th Air Regiment of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s 10th Bomber Division, according to Andreas Rupprecht, who has authored several books on Chinese military aviation and the industry.
WZ-8 drones are seen on vehicles. (Chinese Defense Ministry)
He told Defense News that the unit currently flies the Xi’an H-6K and H-6M bombers. The latter is the primary launch platform of the WZ-8, carrying the supersonic drone on an hardpoint on its fuselage underside and releasing it from a high altitude.
The WZ-8 was also seen on a satellite photo taken in December 2022, while another from early April 2023 showed continued progress in widening the aircraft taxiways leading to the base’s underground aircraft facilities south of the runway.
Using Google Earth’s measuring tool, Defense News assesses that the new taxiways are approximately 25 meters (82 feet) wide, compared to 14 meters (46 feet) previously. However, the underground facilities, which run underneath nearby hills, have yet to be widened.
The presence of WZ-8s at the base was noted in a document ostensibly from the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and leaked online through the social media platform Discord. A member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard is accused of leaking the highly classified information.
A military vehicle carries a WZ-8 supersonic reconnaissance drone during a parade in Beijing, China, on Oct. 1, 2019. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)
Defense News has been unable to verify the veracity of the document. Aric Toler, a researcher with investigative journalism group Bellingcat who has written extensively on the Discord leaks, told Defense News he had not seen the document before.
The published document showed two WZ-8s at the base, which it called “Liuan,” and claimed the imagery was taken during a reconnaissance satellite pass on Aug. 9, 2022.
One of the drones was outside the same hangar as that seen on the satellite photo provided to Defense News, while the other was being towed along the runway.
The document also outlined possible mission flight profiles of the WZ-8, suggesting that it could perform reconnaissance missions over South Korea and Taiwan with a daylight sensor suite including a synthetic aperture radar and electro-optical sensor while flying at Mach 3 at an altitude of 100,000 feet.
It also suggests the drones could recover at China’s coastal airfields following the completion of their missions, landing at bases such as Dashuibo in Wendeng on the Shandong Peninsula or Huian, which is west of Taiwan.
About Mike Yeo
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.