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Video Above: F-35s to Europe

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

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.

J-20 Fighter Jet Manned-Unmanned Teaming

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.

J-20 Stealth Fighters

J-20 stealth fighters, pictured during the 70th founding anniversary of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) air force in 2019, will get Chinese designed and manufactured engines in future generations of the jet. Photo: Xinhua

The “loyal wingman” concept enables manned fighter jets to control the flight-path 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.

F-35s & F-22s Manned-Unmanned Teaming  

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.

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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.

F-35 Drones

The Air Force is assessing whether it can use the Skyborg artificial intelligence technology it is creating to allow an F-35 or F-15EX pilot to control drones like the XQ-58 Valkyrie. (Jeff Martin/Staff)

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.

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.

-- 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 and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. 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