China is ramping up production of unmanned aerial vehicles in an apparent bid to catch up with the U.S. and Israel in developing technology that is considered the future of military aviation.

Western defense officials and experts were surprised to see more than 25 different Chinese models of the unmanned aircraft, known as UAVs, on display at this week's Zhuhai air show in this southern Chinese city. It was a record number for a country that only unveiled its first concept UAVs at the same air show four years ago, and put a handful on display at the last one in 2008.

The apparent progress in UAVs is a stark sign of China's ambition to upgrade its massive military as its global political and economic clout grows. The U.S. and Israel are the currently the world leaders in developing such pilotless drones, which have played a major role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and which analysts say could one day replace the fighter jet.

This year's models in Zhuhai included several designed to fire missiles, and one powered by a jet engine, meaning it could -- in theory -- fly faster than the propeller-powered Predator and Reaper drones that the U.S. has used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Exhibitors did not give precise details of which Chinese drones were fully operational, although one confirmed that the People's Liberation Army, or PLA, had deployed at least two propeller-powered reconnaissance UAVs, which featured in last year's 60th National Day parade.

Read the full story at the Wall Street Journal