The Chinese military appears to be mirroring or even fully copying manned-unmanned teaming tactics with drones and helicopters nearly identical to those used more than a decade ago by US forces in Afghanistan.
Copying Manned-Unmanned Teaming Tactics
The Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper cites Taiwanese reports about a sighting of a small Chinese reconnaissance drone called the KVD-001 UAV operating as a relay communications “node” between helicopters.
“The KVD-001 UAV sent real-time data of the target to the controlling center. The helicopters took off and precisely and quickly locked onto their targets and conducted attacks,” the Global Times reports, citing China’s CCTV television network.
The paper described how the KVD-001 drone sent targeting data and specifics to helicopters flying below the radar at much lower altitudes, perform a critical data-relay function for manned helicopters closing in on a target.
“Helicopters, especially military helicopters, have to fly very low to conduct effective penetration. Under this circumstance, it requires UAVs to conduct reconnaissance and send data of the targets to the helicopters in order to allow the latter to conduct effective attacks It can extend the army's aviation command communication link, provide command communication relay between the army's aviation ground command post and air formations,” the Global Times writes.
The Chinese paper makes the point that while Taiwanese authorities were quick to point out Chinese J-11 fighter jets and Navy ships operating near the island of Taiwan, Taiwanese authorities appear to have “missed” or been unable to detect the Chinese helicopters. This is significant and something which seems to be the intent of the story, meaning that manned-unmanned teaming between drones and helicopters in real time introduces new tactical advantages.
Interestingly, this tactic was used by the US Army in Afghanistan 10-to-15 years ago through an innovative effort to integrate drones with Apache and Kiowa helicopters. Initially beginning as a program called Vuit-2, Apache and Kiowa helicopter crews were able to view real-time streaming video directly from the cockpit of the aircraft. This breakthrough yielded immediate tactical results and quickly evolved into what the Army began to refer to as different levels of manned-unmanned teaming. As the technology matured, Apache and Kiowa crews were not only able to view real time video streams from the drones but also control its flight path and sensor payload.
In a manner nearly identical to the Chinese exercises cited in the Global Times, US Army helicopters have for many years now been able to receive mission specifics and target details prior to even taking-off in many instances because data and critical details regarding a mission were instantly sent from the reconnaissance drone to the cockpit of the Army helicopters. These specific scenarios were happening in Afghanistan with the US Army more than 10 years ago, a circumstance which seems to suggest that China has been way behind the US military in the realm of manned-unmanned teaming.
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What’s significant about this is the fact that, while China is already well known as a cyber espionage threat and a country willing to steal US military technology, the PRC has been copying US military strategies and tactics for many years as well. An apparent Chinese effort to replicate US manned-unmanned teaming tactics, regardless of how effective it may be, appears to be more than a decade behind the US military.
A Chinese newspaper released a photograph of its emerging “suicide” drone descending upon and destroying a tank, revealing its transparent effort to mirror, match, replicate or simply copy the military and tactical advantages associated with an ability to do this.
The Chinese-government-backed Global Times newspaper describes its new FH-901 suicide drone as its “answer” to the US Switchblade drone. The Switchblade is a US military drone which can perform high-risk reconnaissance missions, blanket an area with ISR or, perhaps of greatest consequence, function itself as an explosive and descend upon and destroy tanks. Many Switchblades have been delivered to the Ukrainians who are now having success against Russian armored vehicles by destroying them from the air.
The FH-901 suicide drone and China’s emerging CH-10 tilt-rotor drone and CH-4 and CH-5 drones were all recently put on display in a video produced by China’s Aerospace and Technology Corp. in Beijing. The FH-901 can launch from both air and ground platforms, the Chinese paper said, suggesting that a drone-explosive mini-drone such as this could essentially “fire” out of a manned helicopter or fighter jet. Aerial attack from ground or air-launched drone explosives is something which could prove quite impactful against tanks and armored vehicles given that they are more vulnerable when attacked from above by top-down attacks.
An ability to air-launch a mini-drone explosive from a fighter-jet, helicopter or cargo aircraft is something the US has been demonstrating for years, and the rapid maturation of the technology is quickly leading to the creation of “recoverable” air-launched drones. DARPA’s Gremlins program, for example, has demonstrated an ability to launch and recover drones from a C-130 cargo plane, and US Air Force F-16s have for several years been able to launch mini Perdix reconnaissance drones from the flare chaff of the aircraft.
The tactical advantages associated with suicide drones are quite significant, as they can blanket an area with ISR, test or overwhelm enemy air defenses or simply become and extremely lethal on-the-spot weapon to use without placing humans or manned aircraft in a direct line of incoming enemy fire.
Video Above: Maj. Gen. Pringle Manned-Unmanned Teaming
The Chinese paper does not say whether its suicide drone has any measure of autonomy or an ability to change course in flight, something which could add a considerable tactical dimension to the weapon. The US Air Force has been developing this kind of technology for many years and is also showing how it can be integrated into platforms with manned-unmanned teaming and AI-enabled algorithms and data processing.
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.