China's Biggest Airshow Offers More Evidence Of Beijing's Stealth Drone Focus

China is investing heavily in penetrating unmanned aircraft with a possible eye toward developing a drone that will fly from one its future carriers.

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Though often overshadowed by the country’s other advanced military programs, China has been steadily pushing ahead in its development of stealthy, penetrating unmanned aircraft in recent years. So, it’s not surprising that the Chinese companies are taking the opportunity of the biennial Zhuhai Airshow to show off a previously censored stealthy flying wing design that might eventually find itself aboard a Chinese aircraft carrier and setting the stage for the debut of what could be a new unmanned combat air vehicle, or UCAV.

The Chinese government regularly uses Zhuhai, also known as the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition and Airshow China, to formally reveal new aircraft and other military technologies. In 2016, a pair of J-20 stealth fighter jets made their first official public appearance at that year’s iteration of the airshow. The year before, the first J-31/FC-31 light stealth combat jet prototype took center stage

This time around, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) has brought a stealthy flying wing design that has reportedly been in development for more than four years now. The company has placed it within its Tian Ying, or Sky Hawk, series, even though it does not appear to be in any way related to any of the other four known designs in that family.

CASIC says that this new drone has made a number of flights since late 2017 and released photos of the design team standing around it in 2018. The firm blurred out the unmanned aircraft itself in those images.

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CASIC's newest Tian Ying drone.

“Eighty percent of our drone’s technologies are the newest and most advanced, some of which are leading the global [drone] industry” Ma Hongzhong, the lead designer of the newest Tian Ying said, according to a post from CASIC’ s WeChat social media account in February 2018. At that time, he only mentioned that there had been ground tests of the design, which he did not specifically mention by name.

The images we have now from Zhuhai 2018 show a drone that appears somewhat similar in shape to Lockheed Martin’s recently revealed X-44A design. The aircraft may be a bit larger though, with a wingspan around the 35-foot range.

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Earlier reports said that the drone was designed for long-range operations, but beyond its apparent stealthy shape, there are no clear distinctive visual features to indicate any particular mission sets. It seems more likely that this Tian Ying, as with the X-44A, is or has served more as a testbed and technology demonstrator, which is something we at The War Zone had suggested was a possible role for this drone in the past. The design could evolve into an actual operational design in the future, though. 

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A closer look at the front of the new CASIC Tian Ying.

What is particularly interesting is that its landing gear appears to be more robust than one might associate with a land-based design and better suited to carrier-borne operations. A model of the future Type 003 carrier, which may be China’s first nuclear-powered type, at the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution, the official museum of the People’s Liberation Army, shows it carrying a drone very similar in size and shape to the new Tian Ying.

China is also reportedly planning to install electromagnetic catapults, similar to those on the U.S. Navy’s Ford-class carriers, on this ship, as well as its predecessor, the Type 002, which will be the country's first to feature a Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) configuration. Operators can more precisely tune the power of these aircraft launching systems, which is important for more readily accommodating the very different launching demands of full-size manned aircraft and drones.

The U.S. Navy extensively tested Northrop Grumman's X-47B aboard its own aircraft carriers using traditional steam-powered catapults, as well, proving this is functionally possible. It’s also worth noting that the service abandoned plans to develop a carrier-based UCAV and instead shifted focus to a tanker drone with a secondary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission. In September 2018, Boeing won the competition to produce these unmanned aircraft, known as the MQ-25A Stingray, but did so with a UCAV-derived design that could still evolve into an armed platform at some point in the future.

The Chinese may plan to use Tian Ying, or an aircraft developed from it, in a similar role to validate various capability and basic concepts of operation for carrier-borne low-observable drones. An operational example might work as a tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform akin to the RQ-170. Such a craft can extend the carrier group's sensor reach, targeting capabilities, and overall situational awareness for longer periods of time than what manned platforms can provide and with a lower chance of being detected.

Elsewhere, another firm, the Chinese Aerospace and Technology Corporation (CASC), plans to debut another flying wing unmanned aircraft, or a mockup or model thereof, at Zhuhai. Pictures of that company’s booth in the exhibition hall had shown another, larger flying wing-shaped aircraft covered cloth mats.

There has also been speculation that this might be a model of the H-20 stealth bomber, but this seems unlikely. For one, the object is at the CASC booth, while Xi'an Aircraft Industrial Corporation (XAC) is responsible for the H-20’s development. It’s also sitting under a large sign that says "Unmanned Aerial Vehicle" in English and Chinese. From what little we can tell of the planform under the mats, it appears to be similar in configuration to something roughly akin to an X-47B, but with more slender outer wings and less of accentuated 'cranked kite' configuration.

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A clearer shot of workers setting up CASC's still to be unveiled new unmanned aircraft, or a mockup thereof, at Zhuhai.

If this covered aircraft is indeed a full-size mockup or an actual prototype, it could indicate a pre-production or production configuration is near, which is a major development. This drone would definitely be large enough to function as a true stealthy UCAV or a penetrating medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) ISR platform. 

The general size and configuration appear very similar to Star Systems’ Star Shadow. This company showed off a model of this design publicly at the Singapore Airshow in February 2018. It appeared to be a rework of its earlier SG-1 Star Glory drone, a design that featured a 50-foot wingspan and dates back a number of years. At that same event, CASC revealed a model of its own CH-805 stealth flying wing drone concept, but this has a different planform.

Both Star Shadow and this CASC aircraft appear to be the right size to match up with an apparent cranked kite drone mockup that emerged in satellite imagery of the Gaobeidian radar cross-section test facility in 2017. Regardless if this is the same design or not, it's not surprising that the development of one or more of these similar designs is moving into a more advanced phase. 

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A model of Star Systems’ Star Shadow stealthy drone.

The Chinese may have an eye toward pursuing one or more of these larger drones for carrier-borne operations, as well. "Considerable resources are needed in carrier-based UAV research” and it would be difficult to attempt it without “government support,” was all CASC’s Shi Wen would say on the matter in an interview with state-run newspaper Global Times earlier in 2018. Shi is the chief engineer and designer of the Cai Hong (CH), or Rainbow, drone series, which are mainly non-stealthy designs, but have proven both capable and popular with export customers.

In August 2018, CASIC rather than CASC also released a video showing employees at its 302nd Institute design division working in an office surrounded by posters showing a drone similar to the X-47B taking off from a CATOBAR carrier. That had led some to speculate that this would be the planform of the new Tian Ying, which now does not necessarily appear to be the case.

CASIC

CASIC employees from the company's 302nd Institute work on computers. Posters in the background show a carrier-borne UCAV design.

The Tian Ying and whatever CASC intends to reveal are hardly the only stealth drones China has been working on, either. Since the first of these, the Sharp Sword, emerged in 2013, other designs from the Chengdu Aerospace Industry (CAI) have also become public.

Regardless of the actual proposed mission sets and operating environments for any of these flying wing unmanned aircraft, it’s clear that the Chinese government is investing heavily in stealthy drones, including UCAVs. This comes as the United States continues to either publicly move away from that idea, as previously noted was the case with the X-47B, or otherwise focus on these developments almost exclusively in the classified realm.

China seems to be increasingly aggressive in the UCAV space in particular and if CASC’s reveal does turn out to be an X-47B knockoff with an eye toward carrier operations down the road, or even just a more mature land base UCAV design, it would be another example of the country seemingly picking up where the United States decided to drop off.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com