Japan Air Self Defense Force Report First Appearance of WZ-10 Drone in East China Sea

On May 27th, the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) released a statement that intercepted a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Wing Loong-10 (WL-10) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) over the East China Sea (ECS).

May 27th Intercept

The UAV likely flew from an airbase from Zhejiang Province and entered the Japanese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and then flew in a northwestern direction along the Ryukyu Island Chain. According to the JASDF statement, one WL-10 UAV was identified flying over the ECS north of Okinawa Island. The JASDF responded to the WL-10’s flight by launching F-15J fighter aircraft from Naha Air Base that intercepted the drone. The F-15J aircraft monitored the WL-10 until it flew out of Japan’s airspace in a western direction towards China. The WL-10 did not violate Japanese airspace during its flight.

Map of the WL-10/WZ-10 UAV’s flightpath over the East China Sea during May 27th (Photo: Japan Ministry of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff)

WL-10 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

The WL-10/WZ-10 UAV is a High Altitude Long Endurance UAV designed and manufactured by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group in the mid-2000s. The UAV’s first flight was in 2014, and then it was introduced into the PLAAF service by 2016. The WZ-10 is the People’s Liberation Army’s designation, while the WL-10 is the UAV’s export designation. The drone has some stealth characteristics, such as using composite materials in its construction, tapered fuselage and wings, and outward-canted vertical fins. The WL-10 is offered in combat and ISR variants. The combat variant has six hardpoints, three on each wing, that allow the UAV to carry various missiles and bombs, such as the LJ-7 Air to Surface missiles and the YL-12 GPS-guided bombs, to strike various ground targets. The ISR variant will carry payloads to assist the PLA in gathering Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), Measure and Signature Intelligence (MASINT), and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT).

The UAV’s wingspan is approximately 66 feet (20 meters) long, its height is 12 feet (3.7 meters) high, and its length is about 30 feet (nine meters) long. The WZ-10 will have two AEF-50E turbofan engines, while the WL-10 export version will have one WP-11C or ZW-850 turbojet engine. The drone has a cruising speed of 330 knots (620 kph), an endurance time of approximately 20 hours, and a service ceiling of about 49,000 feet (15,000 meters). Each WL-10/WZ-10 system includes three UAVs that would be linked to one ground control station and associated ordnance. However, the WZ-10 can engage the three UAVs simultaneously, and they can be configured according to the military’s requirements to provide greater flexibility and to fly autonomously. In manual mode, the UAV operator will send commands to the drone via a data link.

Analysis

The WZ-10 flightpath also points to the drone conducting an intelligence collection mission against Japanese and U.S. military sites throughout the Ryukyu Islands. The flight also points to the PLA expanding its use of UAVs near Japan. The May 27th interception of the WZ-10 is the first time that the JASDF intercepted the drone type in the area of the ECS. The UAV likely flew on the specific flightpath to gather SIGINT and MASINT against targets located on Okinawa and other islands that make up the Ryukyus. However, the mission likely prioritized Japanese military sites that exist on the islands north of Okinawa. Furthermore, it also attempted to gather any SIGINT or MASINT from the various military bases that Japan is constructing in the region as part of its pivot to the southwestern part of the country. The PLA would prioritize the Japanese facilities for intelligence collection to determine their status and to gain insight regarding the type of equipment at the bases.

The WZ-10’s deployment also points to the PLAAF’s expansion of the deployment of additional UAVs to areas near Japan. Previously, the PLAAF sent a WZ-7 UAV to conduct a flight in the Sea of Japan in March 2024, and TB-001 UAVs also conducted flights in the Mikayo Strait. The mission of both the TB-001 and the WZ-7 UAVs was likely an intelligence gathering mission to assess how the JASDF would respond to their intrusion. The deployment of the WZ-10 points to the expansion of UAVs that the PLAAF will use in the ECS and the Sea of Japan. The WZ-10’s flight in the ECS also points to the likely expansion of temporary deployments of the drones to the ECS and Sea of Japan from its operations in and around Taiwan.

The PLAAF operates the WZ-10 and the WZ-7 UAV as part of the 16th Air Division’s 48th Air Regiment, based in Shuangliao, Jijin Province. However, the regiment also routinely deploys the WZ-10 to the city of Foshan, Guangdong Province, and uses the airfield as a forward operating airfield. The unit conducts intelligence collection missions in the South China Sea (SCS) when it is deployed to Foshan’s airfield. For example, a WZ-7 UAV was spotted flying in the SCS in April 2024, which indicates that the UAV launched from the airfield in Foshan.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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