The Most Deadly Aircraft on Chinese Carriers Will Be Their Unarmed Stealth Drones
Providing targeting data for land-based anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles
I have received many questions regarding a report in the South China Morning Post that claims China’s Sharp Sword stealth flying wing unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) will be deployed aboard the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carriers in the not so distant future. The article states that according to its undisclosed sources, the drone would be unarmed and would work in a reconnaissance role.
Readers seemed puzzled as to why this would be, but the reality is that it makes perfect sense and goes along with my thoughts on the topic dating back nearly a decade. Those unarmed stealthy drones would actually represent the most deadly aircraft in China’s carrier air wing. Here’s why.
We have been closely tracking China’s remarkable progress in advanced, stealthy, unmanned aircraft technology over the years. Keeping in mind that Beijing only shows us what they want us to see, China is clearly and deeply committed to developing stealthily unmanned combat air vehicles and building out the command, control, and communications infrastructure needed to get the most of them in future conflicts.
They likely got a huge boost in this expansive endeavor after America’s RQ-170 Sentinel stealth spy drone fell into Iranian hands back in 2011. But that’s beside the point. The fact of the matter is that straight-up combat punch is just one mission objective when it comes to China’s work in developing these aircraft—surveillance and reconnaissance are the others.
Above all else, China needs to develop and deploy intelligence-gathering systems that will enable its anti-access and area-denial capabilities—especially its anti-ship ballistic missiles and long-range anti-ship cruise missiles.
These systems require near-real-time targeting data to get their terminal targeting seekers looking in the right spot during their final attack stage of flight. This means having an asset that can data-link pre-launch targeting information and even updated targeting information to the missile during its mid-course stage of flight.
Such an act can be done via a number of methods, although those methods become more limited during an actual conflict. For instance, shadowing a flotilla with a ship can provide this data during a time of peace, but not during a time of war. Satellites may be able to provide some capabilities in this regard, but they too have major limitations and can be jammed, blinded, or destroyed during a conflict
Maritime patrol aircraft that can fly far from their bases and are optimized for detecting and classifying ships at sea are among the best tools for the job, but during a time of war, getting within radar detection range and being able to survive to provide sustained targeting information to missile units hundreds or even thousands of miles away is a very questionable proposition—especially when trying to do so against a U.S. Navy carrier strike group. The Aegis umbrella that is backstopped by E-2 Hawkeye early warning aircraft and fighter patrols makes successfully bringing a maritime patrol aircraft’s sensors to bear on such an armada very questionable if not impossible if open hostilities are underway.
This is where two types of unmanned aircraft come into play. First off, there are high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) remotely piloted vehicles that can fly across vast distances and leverage their high-altitude perch to stay farther away from the deadly maritime targets they are trying to locate. Such a craft could loiter just beyond the perimeter of an enemy flotilla’s defenses while providing targeting data to missile units. It could then scoot away once the missiles are well on their way and sufficient telemetry has been communicated to them so that they have a high probability of hitting their targets.
China has multiple HALE designs flying—such as the Guizhou Soar Dragon and the Shenyang Divine Eagle. While these drones are great for scanning huge swathes of ocean for potential targets of interest over many hours of flight time—like America’s MQ-4C Triton—they are still quite vulnerable and they have to sortie from land bases that could be thousands of miles from an area of interest. Just this long dispatch time alone is problematic for detecting armadas at sea. They also rely entirely on satellite data-links that could be degraded during a time of war. Still, they can cover a lot of ocean area and could be especially effective when their use is paired with other types of intelligence.