One of China’s new Soar Dragon spy drones was seen keeping an eye on the Antietam, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser, as it sailed through the 112-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, which separates the autonomous Taiwan Island from the Chinese mainland, on July 25, Taiwan’s Up Media reported. Beijing regards the waterway as its own and refuses to recognize the autonomy of the government in Taipei, which enjoys thinly veiled US backing.
The Soar Dragon, also known by its Chinese name Xianglong, is described by The National Interest as “China’s answer to the US military’s own Global Hawk surveillance drone,” although the Soar Dragon is much smaller than the RQ-4. Popular Science also once called it “China's Coolest Looking Drone” for its distinctive tandem wing design. However, the unmanned aerial vehicle is still capable of loitering above a battlefield for up to 10 hours - which is incidentally about how long it took the Antietam to transit the strait - at an altitude of 60,000 feet, and possesses a host of monitoring equipment, much like its American counterpart.
@xinfengcao— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) October 16, 2016
China's Soaring Dragon II UAV spotted again ... pic.twitter.com/zSswaFutoM
The Soar Dragon entered production in 2016 and has only been spotted a handful of times operating from three bases in potential trouble regions: Lingshui air base on Hainan near the South China Sea; Yishuntun air base near the northeastern city of Jilin and just 200 miles from North Korea; and Shigatse in Tibet, near the Doklam/Donglang plateau disputed by China and India, on behalf of Bhutan.
"The Xianglong's unique design makes it suitable for long operations at high altitude. Once the drone is commissioned to the military, it will boost the PLA's long-range reconnaissance capabilities," Wang Ya'nan, editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told China Daily in 2016. “Moreover, the jet is a good platform for electronic warfare operations such as signal intelligence collection and electronic jamming.”
However, according to Up Media, the drone was far from the only aircraft rallied during the transit to make the Antietam feel unwelcome: Beijing’s J-11 and Su-30 fighters sortied 10 times during the transit. Further, the US Navy cruiser dispatched one of its MH-60 Seahawk helicopters during the transit, which flew close to the western shore of the strait, and thus undisputed Chinese territory.
It was also reportedly the first time the People’s Liberation Army sent aircraft to monitor a nighttime Taiwan Strait transit, which Washington calls a “freedom of navigation operation” or FONOPS.
The outlet’s report also noted the USS Antietam was accompanied through the strait by a P-8 Poseidon, a large anti-ship, anti-submarine and electronic warfare aircraft derived from Boeing’s 737-800, which served as the ship’s early warning.