The Chinese military is bringing its drone and aircraft carrier programs together, pulling unmanned aerial systems onto carriers as robotic wingmen for pilots.
Shi Wen, the chief engineer of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC)'s attack drone family, told the Global Times that China is working on drones capable of flying from aircraft carriers. This program would be China's response to the U.S. Navy's UCLASS program, which proved drones' ability to take off and land from aircraft carriers, and the U.S. MQ-25 Stingray program, which will deploy refueling tanker drones to carriers in the coming years.
While China's two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the nearly completed CV-17, have ski ramps that would likely limit them to vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drones, the next Chinese carrier, CV-18, will likely have electromagnetic catapults. Those catapults would enable CV-18 and its nuclear-powered successors to launch heavier and faster drones propelled by turbofan engines.
It's likely the drones Shi mentions will be sophisticated, heavier versions of today's systems. The Lijian, for example, uses a flying wing body (just like the B-2 bomber and X-47B drone) and has two bomb bays that could accommodate 2 tons of artillery. A carrier variant would have reinforced landing gears and structures to handle the forces involved in catapult launch and assisted recovery. They may also have larger fuel tanks for extended range.
Shi also added that CASC's primary customer, the People's Liberation Army, was looking at using artificial intelligence to enable "wingmen" drones for manned aircraft.
These plans fit nicely within China's other military ambitions. The nation is already testing the first of VTOL unmanned aerial systems (UAS) on its warships. Those VTOL drones are likely unmanned helicopters, used for reconnaissance and possibly anti-submarine missions. Those drones will likely see service in the next few years, before being replaced by those with more sophisticated VTOL propulsion systems, such as tiltrotor engines (the engines tilt 90 degrees for level flight) or tail sitters (the entire aircraft tilts forward perpendicularly for level flight).
Shi also mentioned that a new stealth drone, the Caihong X "CH-X," will be displayed at the 2018 Zhuhai Airshow in November. The CH-X will likely draw from the work done on the Lijian flying wing stealth drone. Like other members of the CH family displayed at the Zhuhai Airshows, the CH-X will likely be offered for export, possibly making it the world's first stealthy attack drone offered for export. And, as the CH-X is marketed for foreign buyers, it could also likely find domestic naval users as well.
Peter Warren Singer is a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He has been named by Defense News as one of the 100 most influential people in defense issues. He was also dubbed an official "Mad Scientist" for the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command. Jeffrey is a national security professional in the greater D.C. area.