Over the past decade or so, China’s achievements in the field of drones have been evident, with various types leading the world. Of course, this has not halted the development of China’s drone industry; on the contrary, Chinese drones are climbing to higher levels. For example, as reported by the English edition of the Global Times on January 30th, the Rainbow-7 drone (also known as CH-7) may make its debut at the Zhuhai Airshow at the end of the year.
Rainbow-7 was displayed as a model at the Zhuhai Airshow as early as 2018. Considering this, it should have been in the research and development stage over the past few years. According to the report from the Global Times, Rainbow-7 has already completed prototype testing, proving that the flying-wing layout is indeed effective and its performance is quite outstanding. In less than a year, it’s unlikely that a new aircraft in the prototype testing stage could be developed. If it appears at the Zhuhai Airshow in November this year, it’s most likely a prototype or a validation model. Even if it participates in the exhibition in a ground static manner, it would be much stronger than the previous models.
The Global Times report on Rainbow-7 does not provide much information; it only lists some basic features, such as high-level stealth capabilities and long range. Moreover, it is believed that the upcoming model differs somewhat from the model exhibited several years ago. For example, the wingspan of the new model reaches up to 26 meters, with a maximum takeoff weight of 10 tons, capable of carrying missiles or other airborne weapons, and a ceiling raised to around 15,000 meters. Rainbow series drone designer Shi Wen confirmed that Rainbow-7 “will focus more on all-weather reconnaissance and monitoring in highly dangerous environments” and can continue to surveil enemy targets for longer periods.
From these descriptions, Rainbow-7 should be a high-altitude, long-endurance reconnaissance-strike integrated unmanned aerial vehicle with stealth capabilities. Considering its size, it could even be considered a type of unmanned stealth bomber. Due to its flying-wing structure, Rainbow-7’s speed should not be too high; there were previous reports indicating a maximum speed of up to 0.75 Mach. Flying-wing aircraft have never been known for their high speed but rather rely on stealth capabilities and high ceiling to enhance survivability, which also confirms the view that Rainbow-7 is intended to carry out missions in highly dangerous environments.
Currently, there is no more specific data disclosed about the new Rainbow-7 model, so speculation can only be based on previously disclosed general information. As an advanced unmanned aerial vehicle adopting a flying-wing stealth design, Rainbow-7 would likely integrate a large number of advanced radars and sensor devices if it were to carry out reconnaissance-strike missions, ensuring the detection of ground or sea targets from an altitude of tens of thousands of meters. Fortunately, the fuselage is large enough to accommodate a plethora of avionics equipment.
Rainbow-7’s positioning is not only as a stealth bomber but also capable of reconnaissance and penetrating enemy airspace to attack high-value targets such as radars, indicating new improvements in armament and information warfare aspects.
In fact, if Rainbow-7 is intended to be used in this way, it would replicate the mission planning of the United States Air Force for the B-2 stealth bomber in the 1980s. The difference is that at that time, the U.S. military planned to send the B-2 deep into Siberia to hunt down the Soviet/Russian “Poplar” intercontinental ballistic missile launchers and launch vehicles, which is much more effective than covering vast Siberia with nuclear bombs. In other words, the B-2 was intended for strategic use by the U.S. military, and Rainbow-7 could also become a bomber targeting shallow depth high-value targets.
Such a stealthy drone that can come and go unnoticed holds considerable value, especially considering that there are very few countries with systematic anti-stealth capabilities, even powerful nations like Russia face significant pressure when dealing with stealth aircraft. Most countries’ air defense systems would not have particularly good solutions to counter Rainbow-7.
Currently, the most eye-catching drones internationally are generally large and medium-sized reconnaissance-strike integrated drones, such as Turkey’s Anka-S, the United States’ MQ-9, and China’s Wing Loong series and Rainbow-4/5. The characteristics of these drones are high-altitude, long-endurance, and reconnaissance-strike integration, making them cost-effective multi-role platforms.
However, although these drones have their own characteristics in terms of performance, none of them are fast-flying or stealthy. They have poor survivability against comprehensive air defense systems. In the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, Ukraine initially made a splash with the TB-2 drones provided by Turkey, but these medium-sized drones operating in medium to low altitudes quickly withdrew from the battlefield because they could not withstand the dense air defense firepower. Instead, it was the much cheaper micro drones and loitering munitions operating at ultra-low altitudes that wreaked havoc.
Once a stealth drone like Rainbow-7 enters the international market at this level, it will occupy a unique niche, making it almost impossible to encounter opponents of the same level, and it is destined to shake up the drone market. For financially capable users, Rainbow-7 is already capable of serving as a “pocket-sized stealth strategic bomber.”
As for whether Rainbow-7 will enter service in the PLA’s sequence, this also requires observation. After all, the Air Force already has the Attack-11 drone of the same level, and there is some overlap in performance and positioning between the two. The performance and application of the Attack-11 will surpass Rainbow-7, which is controlled to a certain extent in terms of cost.