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Video Above: Colonel Michael Stefanovic, Director of the Strategic Studies Institute for the Air Force sits down for an exclusive interview with Kris Osborn

By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) The People’s Liberation Army has unveiled a new armed, stealthy, loyal-wingman drone intended to fly alongside and operate in coordination with manned fighter jets to conduct reconnaissance, test enemy air defenses and launch attacks with precision weapons. China’s new FH-97A “Loyal Wingman” drone, which looks and operates like the US Air Force’s pioneering and now airborne Valkyrie drone, perhaps offers the latest window into what many suspect is massive, decades long, multipronged Chinese campaign to steal US military technologies and tactics.

China and US Military Technologies

China’s much-discussed and arguably transparent effort to essentially “rip off” US military technologies and designs when it comes to major platforms such as stealth fighter jets and aircraft carriers is quite visible to an observer's eye. Not only do China’s J-20 and J-31 “look” like F-22 and F-35 copycats, but there have been many public, well-documented writings pointing to a long-standing pattern of Chinese cyber and academic espionage specific to US military weapons technologies. Several published Pentagon reports, for instance, have in recent years cited not-so-coincidental similarities between US and Chinese 5th-generation stealth fighter configurations.

A 2018 Pentagon news story about the Department of Defense’s annual China report mentions that apparent similarities between the F-35 and Chinese J-20 could very well be a result of espionage. A cursory look at the J-20 does appear to show some resemblance to the F-35, particularly the blended wing-body front end and internally built, conformal exhaust pipes. These similarities do appear, despite the apparent differences, as the J-20 has a wider and longer lower-body. However, available photos show an even larger measure of similarity between the F-35 and Chinese J-31 multi-role fighter.

As recently as last year, a Global Times report said the J-31 showed design improvements at the 2019 Paris Air Show. Photos from the story reveal profound visual similarities between the F-35 and J-31. This is not without precedent, as the Chinese media itself has noted similarities between the two aircraft. Portions of a story from the Chinese government’s “People’s Daily Online” as far back as 2013 specifically cites design similarity between the emerging Chinese J-31 and the F-35, writing that the “J-31 and F-35 use the same DSI inlet (non-boundary layer-separated lane supersonic inlet).” The only major difference, the paper notes, is that the U.S. has an F-35B Short Take Off and Landing variant and that the J-31 uses two engines compared to the F-35’s single engine propulsion configuration.

US-like looking stealthy aircraft configurations do not appear to be restricted to 5th-generation fighter jets but also possibly evidenced in China's new stealthy H-20 bomber. Available photos and renderings of the H-20 reveal an aircraft which one could say seems in some respects to be indistinguishable from a U.S. B-2. There is nothing surprising about this, given China’s well known and well-documented habit of attempting to steal or copy U.S. weapons designs, it seems particularly apparent in the case of the H-20. It features a similar rounded upper fuselage, blended wing body, curved upper air inlets and essentially no vertical structures. 

There is an equally visible design parallel between the US Ford-class carriers and China’s emerging indigenously built 3rd carrier which abandons a ski-jump configuration in favor of a USS Ford-like flat, expanded flight deck. Not only that, but the Chinese government backed Global Times Newspaper reports that the PLA Navy’s 3rd carrier uses “electromagnetic catapults” in a manner exactly like the breakthrough technology built into the USS Ford.

However, beneath the more visible surface of these apparent “copycat” efforts, the Chinese military appears to continue a massive, multi-service effort to copy, replicate and in many cases “steal” US military innovations, designs and technologies. The parallels between US and Chinese weapons systems expand far beyond aircraft carriers and stealth fighter jets but also include drones, tanks, infantry carriers, AI-enabled computing, networking technologies and countless other systems far too numerous to cite. An even less-recognized element of this is China’s apparent effort to replicate, copy and mirror US tactics and concepts of operation, particularly in the realm of manned-unmanned teaming, multi-domain military training and networked, or “data-driven” warfare. All of these trends are recognizable in Chinese media reports about their own new weapons, multi-service air-ground-sea training operations and development of warfare concepts emerging alongside its new platforms.

A recent example of China’s effort to copy both US technology as well as tactics is evidenced through the recent public debut of the PLA Air Force’s FH-97A “Loyal Wingman” drone. The stealthy unmanned aircraft, presented a Airshow China 2022 as an upgrade to the 2021-released FH-97 drone, is described by the Chinese Global Times newspaper as capable of “all-day, all-weather” operations in support of reconnaissance and attack missions while controlled from the cockpit of a manned fighter.

The FH-97A drone’s configuration certainly resembles certain key aspects of the US Air Force’s Valkyrie “wingman” drone which has already flown successfully with F-35s, however the largest copycat element of the new Chinese platform can be seen in terms of its tactical application. The concept of a “loyal wingman” drone has long been on the radar for US Air Force technologists and weapons developers. The idea is as clear as it sounds, referring to an effort to build an unmanned platform or “drone” that can be fully operated from the cockpit of a manned aircraft. An ability to directly operate the flight-path, sensor payload and data processing of a drone from the cockpit, without having to route ISR data or video feeds through a ground control station, massively reduces latency and multiplies operational possibilities. A loyal wingman drone, for instance, could blanket an area with ISR, test and overwhelm enemy air defenses, jam enemy communications and even launch an offensive strike when directed by a human, while manned fighter jets operate at a safer stand-off distance performing command and control.

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However, regardless of the potential success or operational ability of the FH-97A, China may be years behind the US Air Force in terms of the technological and tactical maturation of the “loyal wingman” concept. Former Air Force Chief Scientist Dr. Gregory Zacharias, who specialized in autonomy, told Warrior more than 8 years ago that the service was developing the algorithms and datalinks to enable manned fighter jets such as an F-35 or F-22 to control a drone from the cockpit. That day has now arrived, as the Air Force has flown its “loyal wingman” Valkyrie drone in coordination with an F-35, a breakthrough which continues to be improved and refined with newer, more-hardened, two-way datalinks and computer processing.

This manned-unmanned teaming concept, pioneered by US Air Force scientists years ago, seems to represent the tactical capacity China is hoping to achieve with its FH-97A. As is often the case with other platforms and tactics, Chinese copycat efforts tend to emerge several years after US military breakthroughs take place and new platforms emerge. The full operational effectiveness of China’s emerging manned-unmanned teaming, loyal wingman capacity may not yet be known, as it depends upon variables less visible to the eye such as the sensing, mission systems, computing and datalinks operating on the FH-97A. However, the Chinese-government backed Global Times newspaper does offer some additional detail about the new drone, stating “the weapons bay of the FH-97A can carry eight smaller, intelligent air-to-air missiles. The drone can also carry pods with different functions, including radar jamming, reconnaissance and communications jamming, as well as fuel tanks, extra missiles and precision guided weapons.”

The paper goes on to explain that the FH-97A is a two-engine drone built with a “low-observable” stealth design, embedded antennas and infrared flares. Arguably, the most significant element of the FH-97A article is buried beneath other initial parts of the essay, which is the mention of the possibility of launching and operating the drone at sea.

“FH-97A could be reconfigured and become operable on vessels. The development team has reserved spaces for strengthened landing gear and strengthened tail hook among others, as maritime deployment was considered at the very beginning of the development,” the Global Times writes.

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If true, this would be extremely significant as China is at the moment well behind the US in the realm of carrier-launched drone technology and vertical take-off-and-landing 5th-generation stealth attack such as the F-35B. China’s carrier launched, 5th-generation J-31 is in the early stages and likely not capable of an F-35B-like vertical take-off, a factor which restricts its use to only carriers, whereas the US Marines can deploy as many as 14 F-35Bs on an amphibious assault ship. Having a stealthy drone, armed with precision weapons able to take off from a PLA Navy ship would help China close this large gap it now has with US Navy unmanned and 5th-generation maritime power projection.

Also, Following years of development and testing, the US Navy demonstrated a first-of-its kind ability to launch and land Northrop Grumman’s X47B demonstrator drone from an aircraft carrier deck many years ago. This breakthrough included paradigm-changing advances in autonomy, as a sea-landing for a drone involves a coordinated ability to balance many variables such as sea-state, wind-speed and ship movement, factors land-launched unmanned systems don’t need to address in the same way. Accordingly, the Navy’s breakthrough with the X47B first carrier-deck drone landing in 2013 has subsequently informed years of US Navy’s development, in part leading to the MQ-25 Stingray, a now arriving carrier-launched refueler drone.

Should China operate with the ability to launch stealthy attack drones from PLA Navy ships, it could measurably improve its maritime lethality, power projection and capacity to attempt rivaling or challenging a vastly superior US Navy Carrier Air Wing and amphib-launched aircraft.

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Another extremely significant element of the FH-97A Chinese drone, if true, would be its ability to operate airborne datalinks with a “multi-band” format, meaning an ability to exchange information with a range of different host platforms. This kind of interoperability, which often requires gateway systems to translate different protocols or transport layer formats, can enable a drone to adapt its communication datalinks and frequencies to accommodate a range of manned aircraft.

“FH-97A also needs to establish contact with different models of fighters. Its airborne data link system has a multi-band format, which is compatible with various aircraft in active service and can realize cross-platform interconnection,” the Global Times writes.

This could be critical, as it would enable the drone to operate in coordination with a J-31, J-20 or legacy Chinese fighter such as a J-10. This kind of interoperability is something the US Air Force has been working on for years, as there are now secure two-way datalinks connecting F-22s with F-35s and even drones, other manned platforms or ground and surface nodes. In a successful demonstration flight last year, the US Air Force used cutting edge datalink technology and computer processing to network its Valkyrie to an F-35 in flight. Available data says the twenty-eight-ft long Valkyrie can reach speeds as fast as 650 mph and attack with JDAMs (precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions) or even a Small Diameter Bomb. Last year, Valkyrie launched a Kratos-built ALTIUS-600 mini drone from its weapons bay, introducing ground-breaking unmanned-unmanned teaming tactics.

JDAC2

These connectivity goals and dynamics central to “networked” or “informationalized” multi-domain, manned-unmanned warfare perhaps represent the most significant element of the apparent Chinese copycat efforts….the transparent attempt to steal and replicate the Pentagon’s fast-emerging multiservice Joint All Domain Command and Control effort. JADC2, as it is called, is an evolving effort to establish the protocols, interfaces and gateways necessary to enable land, sea, surface and even undersea platforms to share time-sensitive, combat-critical war data across the force in near real time. Thinking of information itself as the indispensable weapon of war, the JADC2 concept is intended to enable a vast, multi-domain series of meshed nodes within a secure, broad, joint network to massively shorten sensor-to-shooter time and stay ahead of an enemies decision cycle. If a forward operating drone, using AI-enabled data processing, can gather, organize and transmit time-critical target specifics to its manned host aircraft in seconds, then the manned jet could send target specifics and other critical data to surface ships, other manned aircraft, ground vehicles or even submarines in position to launch a Tomahawk cruise missile at an identified enemy ground target.

The Chinese Global Times description of the concepts of operation aligned with the emergence of the FH-97A is nearly identical to Pentagon publications describing JADC2 in terms of the creation of “intelligent nodes in a combat system.”

"The FH-97A is not only a sensor, but also an ammunition depot, and also an intelligent assistant for pilots. It can extend a pilot's situational awareness and scope of attack, and by using FH-97As in large numbers, each loyal wingman drone can become an intelligent node in the air combat system, obtain local combat information, and filter and integrate to form a wider battlefield situation, assist pilots to make decisions, and liberate people from dangerous and highly tense combat environments, so that in addition to being traditional pilots, the pilots can become more of commanders of a flight formation,” the Chinese paper writes.

Given China’s apparent effort to copycat US technologies, concepts of operation and tactics, the most critical questions would pertain to just how effective China’s copycat efforts are. The US, for instance, is now very evolved with JADC2 at both the joint and service level, as the US Army, Navy and Air Force have all achieved breakthrough success sharing combat-data, targeting information and intelligence across multiple nodes through a formation in real time. Success in this area relies upon speed of data organization and analysis, sensor-to-shooter pairing and the protocols and interfaces needed to ensure secure cross-platform, multi-domain data sharing. 

The Navy’s Project Overmatch, Army Project Convergence and Air Force Advanced Battle Management System are all demonstrating this breakthrough ability to varying degrees. The Army’s Project Convergence, for example, uses AI-enabled computers to instantly gather, organize and analyze otherwise disparate pools of incoming surveillance and targeting data and identify the optimal “pairing” between sensors-and-shooters for human decision makers. Beginning in 2020, the Army’s Project Convergence was able to reduce a 20-min target identification, verification, sensor-to-shooter decision cycle to 20-seconds. Operating at this kind of high-speed warfare, fighting at what commander's call the “speed of relevance,” is exactly what the Pentagon intends with JADC2

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So while China may share the ambition of accomplishing a cross-domain, multi-node, manned-unmanned combat network, just how far along they are may be an unknown or open question. The Pentagon’s China Military Power 2022 report identifies this Chinese ambition clearly, describing China’s concept of future warfare as “intelligentized warfare.”

“In 2021, the PLA began discussing a new “core operational concept,” called “MultiDomain Precision Warfare (MDPW; 多域精确战).”MDPW is intended to leverage a C4ISR network, which the PLA calls the “network information system-of-systems that incorporates advances in big data and artificial intelligence to rapidly identify key vulnerabilities in the U.S. operational system and then combine joint forces across domains to launch precision strikes against those vulnerabilities,” the Pentagon report writes. (Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China)

Mirroring the concepts of operation or “intent” of multi-domain manned-unmanned teaming does not mean it can be made manifest or brought to fruition in a way that rivals fast-emerging US capacity. One element of all of this is likely agreed upon by futurists, technology experts and wargamers is whoever performs this networking, data processing and data sharing the fastest and most accurately, making critical lethal decisions “first” ahead of or inside of an enemy, is the force most likely to prevail in any future war. 

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.