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By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

China appears to be embarking upon an ambitious long-term plan to keep pace with US advances in helicopter technology by emphasizing speed, stealth and innovative, next-generation designs.

The developer of China’s mainstay Z-10 helicopter specifically cited the advanced speeds of the V-22 Osprey and SB-1 Defiant helicopter, saying “within 10 years, it will be the norm for helicopters, or rotorcraft in general, to feature high speed,” according to the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper.

Bell Helicopter

Interestingly, the Chinese paper cites the benchmark of 300 miles per hour, a speed which the operational Bell Helicopter V-280 Valor tiltrotor aircraft has repeatedly demonstrated in recent years. 

The US Future Vertical Lift program has for many years now been building a new generation of rotorcraft designs, weapons and propulsion systems, so it appears as thought the Chinese may be years behind the US Army when it comes to engineering high-speed helicopter technology.

Unlike the traditional configuration of previous helicopters, the new ones will have very different designs, including those that were made to break the physical speed limit of about 300 kilometers an hour restricted by the traditional design…… 

Bell V-280

Bell V-280

It will require exploration and innovation by helicopter designers to achieve high speeds while maintaining the vertical takeoff and landing capabilities,” the Chinese paper states, quoting Wu Ximing, deputy head of the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment and chief designer of the PLA’s Z-10 attack helicopter.

Bell Helicopter V-280 Valor

Wu reportedly told the Chinese paper that the PLA will reportedly be able to unveil new high-speed helicopter designs in about 10 years, whereas the US already has several airborne compound configuration rotorcraft in its FVL program with Bell’s V-280 Valor and Lockheed-Sikorsky-Boeing’s Defiant. Each of these new us-industry built offerings, now competing in the Army’s FVL selection program, are engineered to reach paradigm-changing speeds while preserving an ability to maneuver, hover and operate close to uneven terrain with new levels of agility. 

The V-280 Valor helicopter, for example, can reach speeds greater than 300 knots when in airplane mode using engines and a fixed-wing configuration, yet also hover and maneuver like a helicopter using its two wing-mounted rotor blades for vertical take-off and landing as well as high-speed maneuvering.

U.S. Army Future Vertical Lift (FVL)

U.S. Army Future Vertical Lift (FVL)

The Global times does say China is working on several designs, but offers no detail as to their relative state of maturity or what kind of performance they exhibited in test flights.

China Helicopters

“China's helicopter makers have reportedly conducted test flights for at least two types of helicopters with innovative designs: one is a blended-wing body multi-rotor vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, the other is a helicopter with a completely different, innovative design,” the Global Times writes.

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The US FVL program, however, has been fast moving for many years now and features two mature, nearby operational airborne models being evaluated by the Army. It would not be surprising if China continued to look toward the US as it endeavors to carve its path for future helicopters.

China’s helicopter modernization plan appears to closely mirror or even “copy” what the US has been doing in recent years in several key respects, because the People’s Liberation Army is pushing for high-speed, AI-enabled helicopters.

Video Above: Comparing U.S. 5th Generation Fighter Jets, F-35 & F-22 to China's Fighter Jets, Including the J-20

However, despite these clear ambitions, China’s progress may be several years behind the US in some key respects, according to progress described in a Chinese-government backed newspaper called the Global Times.

It may not be clear just how far along China’s development of AI-systems are, however the Chinese paper’s description of the function and advantages of AI appear quite similar to the way US weapons developers have been talking about the subject.
A fundamental premise of AI, as described in recent years by US weapons developers, is that it can measurably ease the “cognitive burden” upon pilots by in large measure performing high-volume, high-speed procedural and data processing functions autonomously. 

This leverages the breakthrough speeds of AI-enabled processing and also frees up the human to consider more pressing or dynamic variables such as complex, mission-oriented decision making. More subjective considerations and complex problem solving can be left to human cognition while computers perform complex comparisons and data analysis to inform human decision-makers. 

This concept has long been informing rapid US technological and weapons development over the course of many years, and it may indeed have been noticed by the Chinese. The Chinese paper’s description of AI functionality almost exactly parallels how it is discussed in the US.

Citing the engineer who designed the Chinese Z-10 helicopter, Wu Ximing. The Global Times says that, using AI …” a digital helmet or screen could replace the control levers on a helicopter, as AI could understand voice commands from the pilot, give suggestions on flight routes, or even make independent decisions under harsh environments or in complex missions……Intelligent technologies will greatly reduce the workload of the pilot in flying the chopper."

The description of how AI can “greatly reduce the workload of the pilot” is exactly how US weapons developers think about the impact of AI and autonomy upon future operations.

The US Future Vertical Lift program, for example, uses man-machine interface to optimize the best blend of human cognition and subjective decision making with high speed computing. One such effort, referred to as Controlled Flight Into Terrain, refers to a computer aided system wherein the aircraft itself can autonomously navigate itself away from obstacles or potential collisions using sensors and AI-enabled mapping, navigational information and analysis.

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization