Chinese media is reporting this week that the Caihong-T4, a massive, solar-powered drone, flew for the first time at an elevation above 20,000 meters (nearly 65,620 feet), an important accomplishment given that there are no clouds above that level, meaning the craft can essentially fly indefinitely.

A new analysis of that flight says that the craft could give China a hard-to-interdict redundancy in the so-called “kill chain” necessary to accurately target and destroy American aircraft carriers before they are able to launch strike aircraft against Chinese targets.

Flying at 65,000 feet, the drone “can utilize its high flight ceiling to maintain line-of-sight contact with over 400,000 square miles of ground and water. That’s about the size of Egypt. For both militaries and tech firms, covering so much territory makes it an excellent data relay and communications node,” say Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, who write Eastern Arsenal blog.

What does that have to do with kill chains and aircraft carriers?

What Lin and Singer don’t mention is that these capabilities will make the CH-T4 an excellent asset in China’s quest to hold America’s aircraft carriers at risk in the Western Pacific. Much of the attention given to that effort focuses on China’s so-called “carrier-killer” missile, the DF-21D. But as I noted last week in relation to North Korea, the missile itself is only one piece of the puzzle. Even more important is the sophisticated “kill chain” of surveillance, radar and communications systems needed to track and provide updated targeting information to the antiship ballistic missile while it is in flight.

Publicly available information indicates that America’s efforts to defeat China’s antiaccess/area-denial strategies focus on disrupting this “kill chain.” For example, in 2013, then chief of naval operations Jonathan Greenert and then Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh coauthored an essay in Foreign Policy on how Air-Sea Battle intended to overcome A2/AD threats. In the article, they wrote that “Air-Sea Battle defeats threats to access by, first, disrupting an adversary’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems; second, destroying adversary weapons launchers (including aircraft, ships, and missile sites); and finally, defeating the weapons an adversary launches.”

Once it is operational, the CH-T4 will complicate these efforts by increasing the redundancies in China’s kill chain. For instance, if America is able to disrupt or destroy Chinese satellites, Beijing can rely on the drone to provide the information necessary to track American ships. The CH-T4 will have other comparable advantages over other surveillance systems.

One advantage for the U.S., at least for now: 1) The U.S. military is aware of this developing Chinese capability; and 2) it will take several more years’ worth of development before the CH-T4 is ready for prime time. [source]

Why it’s on our radar: Information in this article helps satisfy Priority Intelligence Requirement 1: What are the latest indicators of a U.S.-China conflict?  Each week in our Strategic Intelligence Summary, we gauge the likelihood and scope of conflict with Russia, China, North Korea, and in the Middle East, and track the latest developments in each region.  Subscribe here to receive our premium intelligence products prepared by Intelligence and special operations veterans.