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China has offered its first underneath look at the internal weapons bay on its GJ-11 stealthy attack drone, an armed unmanned platform which first emerged at a Chinese parade in 2019 as a weapon possibly intended to rival or exceed the U.S. stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel drone or armed Reaper.
Initial images of the Chinese drone, however, while appearing as a possible design “rip-off” of several U.S. platforms, only showed the top of the aircraft in the available photograph. The areas under the wings were not previously visible, a scenario which led many to speculate about whether the drone had an internal weapons bay.
GJ-11 Stealthy Attack Drone Weapons Bay
The answer to that question appears to be yes, according to a Chinese newspaper report which states that China is now offering a public look at the drones internal weapons bay underneath the aircraft.
“China's GJ-11 stealth armed reconnaissance drone will open its weapons bays for the first time and display its capability to carry a large amount of precision weapons at the Airshow China 2021,” the Chinese government backed Global Times newspaper reports. The GJ-11 will reportedly be on display at the air show alongside the well-known Chinese J-20 and Y-20 large cargo plane.
Made by a Chinese company called AVIC, the GJ-11 is reported by the Global Times as having two weapons bays between the drone’s landing gear. Each bay, the paper says, has four bomb locations which appear like guided precision air-to-ground bombs.
A stealthy armed drone such as this, able to carry and fire glide-bombs, or precision-strike air-to-ground missiles may not yet have an operational U.S. equivalent despite appearing to be modeled after several U.S. stealthy aircraft designs.
The new Chinese Gongi-11 might bring a rare blend of attributes not likely to be matched by other countries. Many countries naturally have armed stealth fighters, yet it is clear to say that armed stealth drones have not fully emerged.
RQ-170 Stealthy Attack Drone
Of course the U.S. operates several strike drones such as the less-stealthy Reaper, yet available info on the stealthy RQ-170 suggests it is unarmed. It can be difficult to optimize a blend of what might be tough to combine characteristics, as weapons pylons or weight and size-adding internal weapons bays can make the engineering of a super stealthy platform more challenging.
While the U.S. is pursuing a stealthy armed “long-shot” attack drone with DARPA and industry, the RQ-170 is not armed and platforms such as the B-2 are of course manned. In fact, the Chinese paper specifically says the GJ-11 configuration resembles a “flying wing design similar to the US’ B-2 strategic bomber.” This is by no means a surprise, as China has a well-known and documented history of designing what appear to look like U.S. design copycat efforts, or rip-offs.
GJ-11 Stealthy Attack Drone Missiles
Will the new GJ-11 Chinese platform fire HELLFIRE-like air-to-ground precision missiles? Or even drop glide bombs? The specific weapons characteristics are not likely to be available, however a Chinese government backed newspaper says the drone is built with two internal weapons bays, each with four bomb locations.
Perhaps most of all, the existence of the GJ-11 attack drone raises an interesting question about the maturity of Chinese stealthy attack on air defenses as well as manned-unmanned teaming.
Loyal Wingman Drone Concept
For many years now, for instance, the U.S. Air Force and its research lab have been working intensely to develop the “loyal wingman” concept wherein a manned aircraft controls a nearby drone from the cockpit. This of course reduces latency, improves survivability and standoff range for manned pilots and streamlines attack options for aircraft operating above hostile territory.
A stealthy attack drone, as opposed to less-stealthy U.S. Gray Eagles and Shadow drones controlled by nearby Apache helicopters, certainly may multiply attack options against advanced air defenses while keeping manned jets out of reach from ground fire.
The U.S. is already having great success moving its “loyal wingman” concept toward operation with its Valkyrie drone which has flown alongside manned fighter jets in U.S. Air Force demonstrations.
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F-22 & F-35 Drone Manned-Unmanned Teaming
For several years now, the Air Force has fast been making progress developing the kind of scenario wherein a 5th-generation fighter such as an F-22 or F-35 could control drones in real time from the cockpit, controlling both the flight path trajectory as well as the sensor payload. The operational capacity is fast-approaching for the U.S. Air Force.
To what extent is China able to replicate this? Are they able to replicate it with a stealthy attack drone? The existence of a drone such as this, especially if it exists in large numbers, introduces new dimensions to stealth attack as it could take on the most high-risk attack missions without putting pilots at risk.
Thus far, U.S. efforts to engineer manned-unmanned teaming do not show use of a “stealthy” drone, however DARPA appears to be making fast-progress on this.
DARPA's LongShot Attack Drone
Early conceptual renderings of DARPA’s new LongShot attack drone show what looks like a stealthy platform. Details regarding the actual technical configuration of the LongShot drone are not yet available, as an actual prototype may not exist as of yet, however, both DARPA and Northrop Grumman have released early conceptual renderings of what looks like a stealthy drone.
The DARPA effort, which naturally aims to bring ground-breaking attack possibilities to the Air Force, has awarded developmental deals to Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, and Northrop Grumman. Early design work is already underway. Perhaps U.S. efforts with the armed, stealthy LongShot attack drone are well ahead of China’s GJ-11?
At first glance, China’s effort to deploy a stealthy armed attack drone may seem extremely cutting edge or novel, yet there is indeed a lot of precedent for this kind of platform. Stealthy drones and armed drones have now existed for many years, but a combined drone that is both armed and stealthy is much more rare.
However, the U.S. actually developed plans for an armed stealthy drone capable of taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Armed, Carrier-Launched Stealthy Drone: UCLASS
The existence of the Chinese GJ-11 appears to mirror the configuration and possible mission scope of a former U.S. Navy program to deploy a first-of-its-kind armed, carrier-launched stealthy drone called UCLASS, for Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program.
The aircraft, which evolved out of a multi-year developmental effort to build the X-47B demonstrator, was a pioneering breakthrough platform to build and operate a never-before-seen stealthy carrier attack drone.
The success of the program, which drew from the collective expertise of engineers, stealth experts and Navy scientists to build a drone able to manage the complex variables associated with landing on a carrier, gave rise to the UCLASS effort.
The UCLASS drone ran into an interesting predicament, as it was intended, much like the new Chinese drone, to bring the dual-advantage of combining stealthy reconnaissance and air attack weapons capability into a single platform.
The program collided into a wall of debate, with some developers arguing that the aircraft needed to remain stealthy like the X-47B to defeat rival air defenses, yet others felt it needed to be larger, bulkier and therefore less stealthy to carry large fuel tanks in order to conduct longer-dwell missions without needing to return or refuel.
Added to this debate was the question as to whether the UCLASS should be an armed strike drone as well, something which seemed entirely feasible at the time. Engineering a stealthy drone able to take off and land from a carrier was itself a tremendous breakthrough for the Navy, and proposing to arm it certainly extended the curve even further. However, once the ability to autonomously land and take off on a carrier had been established by a sleek, stealthy looking drone, the prospect of arming it did not seem impossible.
Ultimately, the platform never did quite seem to reconcile these positions or recover from this conceptual collision, and wound up evolving into what is now the MQ-25 Stingray aerial refueler drone. However, the X-47B program was extremely successful, historic and precedent setting, as a carrier-launched drone simply did not exist until the demonstrator emerged. Perhaps an X-47B-like armed carrier launched stealth drone shall return? There are a lot of reasons why that might make sense.
Will China’s GJ-11 operate with a maritime take-off capability? That seems unlikely, however it would be a safe bet to assume that many at the Pentagon are not taking chances with this. -- Kris Osborn is the President and Editor-in-Chief of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.