Unmanned aerial systems, both armed and unarmed, take centre stage at the Chinese air show
Prasun K. Sengupta
The Airshow China 2022, or the 14th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, held from November 8 to 13, 2022, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, was an aerospace expo only by name.
For, the expo site was full of ground warfighting exhibits that included a wide variety of manned and unmanned armoured vehicles, tube and rocket artillery systems, ground-based air-defence systems, small arms and ammunition, warships of different types, and a wide variety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
Accompanied by marketing/sales literature in Arabic language, such exhibits were clearly aimed at export markets in conflict zones spread through the African continent and West Asia from where the issuance of end-user certificates is an exception. But some of the notable aerospace-related exhibits provided useful pointers towards ongoing research and development (R&D) efforts undertaken by China’s military-technical and military-industrial complexes.
One such exhibit was a conceptual stealthy, tailless sixth-generation multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) design that was showcased at the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (AVIC) Ultravic kiosk.
Another notable exhibit was the unmanned FH-97A ‘loyal wingman’, shown by the China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation (CASC). The FH-97A’s fuselage, wings, and vertical stabilisers were all different from the baseline FH-97 design unveiled a year ago. The FH-97A features engine intakes on either side of the fuselage and are of a divert-less supersonic inlet (DSI) design. The FH-97A also features two distinct and exposed traditional engine exhaust nozzles at the rear, unlike the stealthy shrouded design seen on the earlier FH-97.
It is not clear if the FH-97A also has tricycle landing gear and is expected to take off and land from conventional runways. The FH-97 was designed to use a ground-based rocket-assisted take-off concept involving a static ground-based launcher. The FH-97A also houses an optronic sensor installed within a stealthy gold-plated windowed enclosure at the top, plus gold-coloured transparencies on either side of the forward fuselage, possibly housing dedicated side-looking sensors that could allow the FH-97A to spot and track multiple airborne and ground-launched targets from different angles, and do so in a way that is immune to radio-frequency jamming and is passive in nature, the latter feature helping to reduce the chance that opponents might know they have been detected at all.
The FH-97A also does away with the FH-97’s ventral internal stores bay for a pop-down launcher under the fuselage from which small anti-missile interceptors could be launched. This, in turn, would be capable of providing close-in air-defence for manned airborne combat-support platforms like aerial refuelling tankers, airborne early warning and control systems (AEW & CS), cargo aircraft and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, all of which would be primary targets for any opponent. This in turn could extend to escorting MRCAs or other UAVs and providing them close-in air-defence as part of a larger manned-uncrewed team force-mix. Overall, therefore, the FH-97A appears to be primarily intended for a loyal wingman-type role working together with crewed platforms.
Other, lower-end ‘loyal wingmans’ showcased at the expo included the LJ-1, launched from the Xi’an H-6K medium-bomber. Originally intended as a supersonic aerial target, the LJ-1 can be readily reconfigured into a lower-end tactical uncrewed air vehicle. Also shown at the expo was a full-scale mock-up of the reusable MD-22 unmanned, near-space hypersonic testbed that is 10.8 metres long, height of 1.6 metres, has a wingspan of 4.5 metres, empty weight of around 1 metric-tonne and a maximum take-off weight of 4 metric-tonnes, and is hyped to be able to hit speeds of up to Mach 7 on sorties that could see the UAV cover distances up to 8,000km. The range figure seems unlikely and it could just represent aspirational ideas or even similar concepts with more realistic metrics that are under development.
Coming to combat-support platforms, the expo played host to the public unveiling of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) Xi’an YY-20 aerial refuelling tanker, which features redesigned landing gear sponsors, which come to much sharper points at their fronts and rears. The YY-20 has a three-point hose-and-drogue aerial refuelling system. Also making its public debut was a new variant of the KJ-500 AEW & CS, which features a roof-mounted aerial refuelling probe, thereby allowing such platforms these to stay on station longer, even in operating areas that require longer transits to get to.
Turbofans & Missiles
At Zhuhai, the state-owned Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC) pavilion displayed two turbofans with thrust-vectoring control (TVC) nozzles, plus another four turbofan designs. Of these, five belonged to the ‘Taihang’ family, all developed by the Liming Engine Manufacturing Corporation. One turbofan, derived from the FWS-10A two-shaft augmented turbofan was showcased as a 1:2 scale-model fitted with a two-dimensional (2-D) TVC nozzle that comprised four wedge-shaped structures attached to a rectangular section at the aft of the turbofan.
The top and bottom horizontal wedge flaps were shown to move along the pitch axis with the help of actuators. This will result in a bi-directional flow of the exhaust jet gasses. The left and right vertical wedge structures were fixed. Such a TVC mechanism will then help control the attitude of the aircraft, in this case, the pitch. Also displayed was a 1:2 scale-model of a FWS-10A turbofan equipped with a 3-D thrust vectoring nozzle. As far as guided-missiles go, the expo saw the public debut of two systems: a hypersonic, air-launched variant of the M-20B battlefield-support missile, and the HD-1C ground-launched supersonic anti-ship missile.
A light vehicle-mounted swarm-UAV launcher that is capable of launching up to 18 drones was showcased at the expo. It is largely reminiscent of a system tested by the PLA Ground Forces (PLAGF) in 2020. A brief curtain-raiser video-clip of the unnamed drone swarm system was aired by the CCTV state television station just prior to the inauguration of the expo. The launcher has been developed by the China Ordnance Equipment Group (COEG), also referred to as China South Industries Group Corporation.
The system is designed to serve as a light and highly manoeuvrable loitering drone swarm launcher, with the munitions coming in individual launch cannisters for easy reloading and being available in both information-gathering and ground-attack configurations. This enables the system to perform the various core mission sets outlined by CCTV, including reconnaissance, area control, damage assessment, precision strike, and cluster-strike saturation attacks. When equipped with explosive charges, the drones would be ideal for striking ground personnel, light armoured vehicles, simple fortifications, and other high-value targets such as air-defence systems. Two of the unidentified loitering munitions that this system will ostensibly be capable of launching were shown at the expo.
One was on display with its wings popped out beside the vehicle, while another one extended out from inside a launch-tube with its wings retracted. A gimballed turret-mounted was on the nose of both drones that were displayed. Such a sensor provides a remote video feed for reconnaissance and targeting. A mix of drones loaded with different payloads, from warheads to electronic surveillance measures to video surveillance to jammers would be ideal for employing a swarm-like capability against a complex target set. The drones’ narrow body, pop-out folding wings, and V-shaped tail, indicate that they can also be individually launched from vehicle-mounted cannisters. The highly mobile light tactical vehicle is capable of quickly relocating in a ‘shoot-n-scoot’ fashion depending on the needs of the mission.
The mast-mounted target acquisition sensor is a critical part of a system as it will provide much better line-of-sight connectivity with the drones and the launch-vehicle. While the drones can be programmed to hit a static target autonomously or possibly to fly a certain route and return with reconnaissance data, without a line-of-sight link the drones cannot be dynamically employed and targeting on the fly is not an option. During the expo, the China Academy of Electronics & Information Technology held a field demonstration, which employed a 6 x 6 version of the Dongfeng Mengshi light tactical vehicle mounted with a drone launcher that featured a whopping 48 launch tubes as opposed to 18.
During the expo, the PLAGF announced that it had officially ordered the CAIG Wing Loong-10 turbofan-powered UAV for service-induction, giving it the military designation WZ-10. These drones will be used as electronic warfare platforms. The CAIG has said in the past that the design, also known as the ‘Cloud Shadow’, can be armed with various air-to-ground and anti-ship missiles, and it is certainly possible that the PLA will eventually acquire versions for use in other roles, too.
The CAIG also unveiled a new member of its ‘Wing Loong’ family of armed MALE-UAV, the Wing Loong 3, which features larger wings than the preceding Wing Loong 2. Work on developing the Wing Loong 3 began 2018. It is very closely related to the Wing Loong 2, which first emerged publicly in 2015. The original Wing Loong design, or Wing Loong 1, was a smaller design. The CAIG claims that the Wing Loong 3 has a maximum takeoff weight of 6,200kg, versus the Wing Loong 2’s 4,200kg. Data that the CAIG provided at Zhuhai also says that the Wing Loong 3 has an absolute maximum range of 10,000km (just and can stay aloft for up to 40 hours at a time, substantially greater than the Wing Long 2’s 3,000km-range and 30-hour endurance. The MALE-UAV’s actual range and endurance on any particular sortie would, of course, be heavily dependent on its exact configuration and stores loading.
Extended-range operations would also require a robust beyond-line-of-sight data-link and/or a higher degree of autonomy. Interestingly, the Wing Loong 3 on display at Zhuhai was seen armed with a PL-10E infra-red-guided air-to-air missile, along with a sonobuoy launcher, and a small air-launched uncrewed aircraft under its wings. The CAIG also had a Wing Loong 1E on display. This is an advanced version of the older Wing Loong 1 that first emerged earlier this year and features the ability to carry more stores, among other improvements. The ‘E’ in the designation means this MALE-UAV is meant for export. The Wing Loong 1 series is already one notable example of China’s successes on exporting armed and otherwise more robust military drones on the international market, with examples in service or set to enter service in the coming years in a dozen countries. Also displayed was the Loong 4, a hexacopter, and the Loong 5, a so-called ‘hybrid’ vertical take-off and landing UAV with pusher-props at the ends of its twin tail booms, as well as vertical rotors on underwing booms.
The China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation (CASIC) again brought an example of its Tian Ying, or Sky Hawk, flying-wing drone at Zhuhai. This crewless aircraft design was first unveiled at the 2018 Zhuhai expo, at which time the CASIC said it had already been in development for four years. The UAV is something akin to a small stealthy UCAV/ISR flying-wing platform and it has been indicated on multiple occasions that it, or a version of it, could end up being deployed on the PLA Navy’s aircraft carriers.
Lastly, the state-owned China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC) unveiled its SLC-18 P-band (250–500 MHz) active phased-array space surveillance radar that can also be used to track anti-ballistic missiles. The SLC-18 is approximately 9 metres tall and 8 metres wide. The antenna of the low-frequency radar array is covered with 960 disk-shaped cross-polarised antenna elements mounted at an elevated angle by a hydraulic assembly. The radar is used for upper atmosphere and space surveillance, and can search, detect, and track objects such as ballistic missiles and low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.
In addition, the system can build a catalogue for forecasting LEO satellites, as well as acquire multi-target track and measurement data. The SLC-18 has a digital, fully coherent, solid-state design. The radar’s ability to operate in low frequency indicates that it has counter-stealth capabilities. It can be transported by land by a trailer truck convoy. The JY-26 ‘Skywatch’ radar with its disk-shaped polarised elements, displayed in 2014 at Zhuhai, had a design similar to that of the SLC-18. The JY-26 was displayed in a smaller antenna array configuration with 512 dipole elements. Pakistan is reportedly the SLC-18’s first export customer.