(Washington, D.C.) Chinese aircraft carriers, 5th-generation stealth fighters, infantry carriers and drones strike what many regard as a “concerning” resemblance to comparable U.S. platforms.
Not only has there been consistent and well documented concern about Chinese espionage regarding the theft of U.S. technology and many specific weapons specs, but to the simple observer there does seem to be a noticeable pattern.
Usually several years after a new U.S. platform emerges, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army unveils a strikingly similar platform revealing a troubling degree of nearly identical configuration.
Now this does not mean the sensors, fire control, weapons system or other less visible technical aspects of a given platform have been copied as well, yet this pattern of apparent “copying” is widespread and very noticeable.
Several years after the USS Ford-class carriers emerged onto the scene with larger, flatter flight deck, the Chinese abandoned its “ski-jump” aircraft carrier design in favor of something that looks nearly identical to a U.S. Ford-class configuration.
The now emerging Chinese VT5 “light tank” could easily be seen as a conceptual and technical rip-off of the U.S. Army’s now underway Mobile Protected Firepower program to engineer a faster, more agile and deployable lethal battle tank.
Similarities between the J-31, J-20 and U.S. 5th Generation stealth aircraft have been discussed for many years now, given the recognizable extent to which the external stealth configuration resembles U.S. stealth renderings such as an F-35 blended wing-body configuration, internal weapons bay and seemingly seamless bolting or connecting of fuselage segments.
China’s Gongi-11 stealth attack drone, revealed in a parade in 2019, seems to almost exactly parallel or combine attributes from the U.S. Navy’s previous X-47B stealthy carrier -launched drone and the existing RQ-170 stealth surveillance drone.
The apparent similarities do not seem limited merely to external design but expand to weapons applications as well.
China’s large, medium-altitude reconnaissance drone, the WJ-700, not only mirrors the U.S. Reaper in appearance but is also armed with an anti-ship missile. A large drone armed with an anti-ship missile may even be an attempt to take weaponization of something like the U.S. Reaper to a new level. The Reaper now fires a wide ranging arsenal of weapons to include the recent addition of the AIM-9X air-to-air missile, yet it does not seem clear that the U.S. now operates a drone armed with an anti-ship missile.
Certainly fixed wing aircraft such as a B-1B bomber or fighter jet can shoot something like a Long Range Anti-Ship missile from the air, and Northrop Grumman and DARPA are now engineering a new “Long-shot” armed drone platform to potentially fill this gap.
What is significant about this apparent Chinese pattern of replicating U.S. technology designs, specs and even weapons applications, is the timing with which they appear. Each of the respective copy-cat Chinese systems regularly surface several years behind the U.S. system they appear to be trying to replicate.
China’s effort to steal U.S. weapons technologies, innovations and platform designs is both well known and well documented, yet it is accompanied by an increasing commensurate effort to replicate emerging U.S. strategies, tactics and warfare maneuvers.
The Chinese already appear to be copying the Pentagon’s ongoing effort to architect a multi-domain warfare synergy through air-sea drills and other kinds of war preparation exercises.
A more recent effort, it seems clear, is an apparent attempt to copy what is arguably the most significant U.S. military program … Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2). The idea is to engineer a meshed network of dispersed yet securely connected combat nodes across a combat area. The intent of JADC2 is, among other things, oriented toward reducing sensor to shooter time to expedite a combat decision-making cycle and stay in front of an adversary.
This relies not only on transmitting information in a secure fashion but also executing data and information processing, organization, analysis and data fusion. It could be described as information driven warfare, an effort to cover dispersed and otherwise disconnected combat platforms or nodes, whether they be fighter jets, bombers, tanks, drones or ground control centers, to one another in real time.
In order to do this, vast amount of sensor data needs to not only be gathered but properly processed and analyzed so the most pressing and relevant details are identified and transmitted across the force according to mission needs and changing threats. This is part of why so much of JADC2 is being improved through the application of AI-empowered algorithms, computers and databases.
JADC2 could be considered as “defining” in terms of how the Pentagon plans to win future wars … however such a strategic approach may not be being pursued by the U.S. alone. Specifically, China’s well known military modernization push now appears to be copying JADC2 or doing its own version in an effort to expand and expedite networking.
This Chinese concept, which very closely resembles the Pentagon’s JADC2, is discussed in a Chinese newspaper in the context of developing and deploying a new Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) airplane, something which is itself a copy of several U.S. surveillance planes such as the U.S. Navy’s E2D Hawkeye.
While discussing the maturation of China’s new AWACS, China’s Global Times newspaper quotes its military officials saying that AWACS will “likely not be one single early warning aircraft but a cluster of platforms that can accomplish different missions and build an information network.”
This concept sounds exactly like JADC2 as well as the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System.
“But war is not about just an individual aircraft, but a system, so there should be space, aerial, ground, maritime and underwater platforms integrated together and doing their job, Lu said, noting that this will enhance the joint combat capability based on an information network system,” Lu Jun, chief designer of China's KJ-2000 early warning aircraft, said as quoted in the Global Times.
Of course however promising a combat strategy may appear, its execution is of course the true test of operational functionality in warfare. Networks need to be hardened, ranges need to be extended, gathered data and sensor information needs to be processed and numerous transport layer avenues of communication need to be refined, demonstrated and ready for operations. This can be SATCOM connectivity, GPS guidance, RF datalink information exchange, software-defined radio or even newer possibilities such as optical or laser communication possibilities.
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.