China aims to pair J-20 stealth fighter with 'loyal wingman' battle drone

Reports suggest Beijing may speed past rivals with supersonic helper for its air superiority weapon

China may be aiming to match US efforts to operate pilotless aircraft alongside crewed fighter jets, by creating a so-called "loyal wingman" drone to fly with the nation's J-20 supersonic stealth fighter.

According to reports in The South China Morning Post, Beijing is developing a cutting-edge combat drone called the FH-97A to complement the J-20 – aka the "Mighty Dragon".

Similar drones are being developed by other air forces, however many are for subsonic platforms. One example of the latter is the MQ-28 Ghost Bat being developed by Boeing for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

In contrast, the FH-97A may match the performance of the J-20, reports suggest.

Loyal wingman aircraft accompany crewed combat aircraft and help protect the human pilot and their craft from attack. The drones can also fly ahead of a crewed aircraft to attack targets without putting human pilots at risk. Such drones typically require advanced semi-autonomous capabilities, operating under the overall direction of the crewed aircraft.

A mock-up of the FH-97A was shown at the Zhuhai Airshow in China in November 2022, where it did not seem attract special attention. Some Western observers dismissed the Chinese drone as little more than a copy of Australia's MQ-28 or the XQ-58A Valkyrie – an experimental US drone that forms part of the Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) project, which aims to develop a drone to escort the F-22 or F-35 crewed fighters.

But the SCMP report quotes a China-based military analyst who claims the FH-97A is instead designed to be a high-performance aircraft, unlike the subsonic Valkyrie.

Such drones might be used to help the Chinese military to deter US aircraft from operating surveillance flights close to China's south eastern coast, the report suggests.

China has made huge investments in artificial intelligence, with a report from McKinsey & Company last year ranking it as one of the top three countries for AI globally.

This is one reason why the US has imposed restrictions on the export of advanced technology to China, as Washington fears that such technology might end up in the hands of the Chinese military. AMD and Nvidia were ordered to stop shipments to the country of their most advanced GPU hardware which is used for accelerating AI processing, for example.

The UK recently cancelled its own loyal wingman effort, the Mosquito project, citing a change of direction following a detailed review of the program. The Mosquito project was part of the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) program that planned a 2023 demonstration of a craft capable of flying alongside crewed fighter planes, while armed with missiles and carrying surveillance and electronic warfare technology.

The Royal Air Force announcement that Mosquito had been squashed saw the Royal Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) state it had made "substantial progress" in understanding and harnessing a range of future uncrewed capabilities, and that it would "aggressively pursue" the RAF's commitment to integrate advanced uncrewed capabilities "with more immediate beneficial value" into the force mix. ®

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