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By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

New Chinese Wing Loong-1E Drone Copies US Army Grey Eagle

(Washington D.C.) China may be copying a successful and promising US Air Force “loyal wingman” effort intended to enable manned jets to operate nearby drones from the cockpit of the aircraft to reduce latency, expand mission scope and bring paradigm-changing possibilities for coordinated air attacks.

A report in the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper says the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is experimenting with manned-unmanned teaming with its J-20 5th-generation stealth fighter jet.

The “loyal wingman” concept enables manned fighter jets to control the flightpath and sensor payload of nearby drones without needing to transmit video and data back through a ground control center. Rather the incoming information in the form of video, still photos or EW specifics from drones can be collected, gathered and organized by on-board computer processing, greatly improving operational efficiency and multiplying mission options.

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The US Air Force, for example, has been making rapid progress on this for many years now and has even flown F-35s alongside its Valkyrie drone to refine manned-unmanned teaming concepts and possibilities. The possibility of enabling F-22 or F-35 pilots to control drones from the cockpit was on the radar for Air Force scientists years ago. Weapons developers saw an opportunity to reduce risk to manned aircraft by enabling them to control forward drones to test enemy air defenses, blanket an area with surveillance and even fire weapons when directed by a human.

It would certainly not be a surprise if China were to notice US progress in this area and seek to replicate it, as that is what the Global Times report seems to suggest. The Chinese newspaper reports that the loyal wingman concept could prove quite useful in its new twin-seat J-20 as an aviator could operate the drones while the pilots flew the aircraft.

“Combat data from the second seat could be gathered, analyzed and used to train artificial intelligence, which could eventually replace the second pilot,” the Global Times report says.

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It is not clear how advanced the PLA Air Force might be with this kind of technology, yet it is clearly a force multiplier and major advantage for an attacking force. This is particularly true as more computer automation and AI programs evolve to speed up the pace of data analysis and transmission. As part of this, aircraft will be able to perform a much greater range of functions autonomously, such as gathering and processing data, without needing human intervention.

With this kind of technology, for example, a J-20 might be positioned to operate a forward drone swarm launched to challenge or overwhelm enemy air defenses.

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China’s Grey Eagle CopyCat

The People’s LIberation Army Air Force has been flying a new large drone which appears to be a copycat of the US Army’s well-known Grey Eagle drone.

Upon announcing that a new drone has taken flight, the Chinese-government backed Global Times newspaper said the new Wing Loong-1E drone will have more “range, endurance, efficiency and reliability” when compared with its predecessor.

The new Wing Loong-1E just made its maiden flight recently, a development which adds a new drone to China’s family of Wing Loong drones built by state owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China.

“The Wing Loong-1E is still distinguishable as a Wing Loong-1 drone, but it made some changes to aerodynamic design, including adding upward-pointing winglets to the tip of the main wings like a Wing Loong-2,” the paper says.

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In an apparent effort to lighten the weight of the drone, and increase speed and endurance, Chinese developers are making the new drone almost entirely by composite materials.

“By using composite materials for the entire aircraft, which is an advanced technology, the drone must be lighter and sturdier than the original Wing Loong-1, and it will likely enjoy longer range and endurance as well as higher efficiency and reliability,” the paper says.

Interestingly, the Chinese paper specifically cites the US Army Gray Eagle as a point of comparison regarding some of the desired properties of the new PLA Air Force drone.

The Gray Eagle can perform a full range of missions to include aerial surveillance as well as armed attack; the drone operates electro-optical and infrared sensors, synthetic aperture radar and four HELLFIRE missiles.

“The MQ-1C Gray Eagle has a maximum gross takeoff weight of 1,633 kilograms, a fuel capacity of 261 kilograms, an internal payload capacity of 261 kilograms and an external payload capacity of 227 kilograms, with a service ceiling of 8,839.2 meters, a maximum endurance of 25 hours and speed of 309 kilometers an hour, according to the website of its maker, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems,” the Global Times says.

Unlike its predecessor the Predator, the Gray Eagle relies upon a heavy fuel engine to offer increased horsepower and improved fuel efficiency.

In terms of its external configuration, the new Chinese drone does look a lot like an Army Gray Eagle, so it would make sense that the Chinese paper cited it. However, despite its outward appearance, there is little information on the kinds of high-fidelity sensors operating on the new Chinese drone. Are its cameras both Electro-Optical and Infrared? How long is their range and what kind of image fidelity or resolution do they generate? The answers to these questions likely inform the extent to which the new Chinese drone rivals or can compete with the US Army’s Gray Eagle. Perhaps most of all, any margin of difference may reside in the kinds of computing and data processing built into the platform.

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.