China’s Loyal Wingman Drone Flies Alongside Manned Fighters – Popular Mechanics

Heavy Military Drones Seen In Zhuhai, China

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  • The LJ-1 is designed to function as a robotic wingman to manned aircraft.
  • The drone’s development is evidence Chinese companies see the merit of America’s “loyal wingman” concept.
  • Unlike other drones, the LJ-1 can be sent on a one way trip with a high explosive payload, turning it into a cruise missile.

A mysterious Chinese company is showing off a concept model for a high speed “loyal wingman” drone at an airshow outside of Moscow. The LJ-1 is designed to function as a high speed target but also fly alongside manned fighter jets—and sacrifice itself if necessary. The drone is an endorsement of the loyal wingman concept, currently being pioneered by the U.S. and Australia.

According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, the LJ-1 is currently on display at the MAKS 2019 Air Show at Zhukovsky Air Base. Russia’s largest air show, it’s where Russian and other foreign companies show off their latest aircraft and aerial weapon designs, hoping to drum up orders. A photo of the drone at the AW&ST web site shows a sleek, cockpitless aircraft with an air intake at the top rear of the fuselage.

China’s state-run Global Times online newspaper describes LJ-1 is a jet powered drone designed to imitate 3rd- and 4th-generation fighter jets, and under some circumstances 5th-generation jets. The drone is described as a “tactical target featuring sustained-G, long endurance, stealth and recoverability.” It’s described as a product of Xi’an-based Northwestern Polytechnical University.

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X-58A Valkyrie.

Kratos Defense

It’s not just a target drone. Aviation Week says the LJ-1 is capable of flying “tactical operational missions.” Furthermore, Aviation Week writes, “LJ-1 would be capable of functioning as a radar jammer or a standoff land attack missile, the Chinese developers say. It could also perform a mission of interfering with infrared seekers, although it was not clear what this meant.” The drone is also being developed by a Chinese company “CCKW”, which is unheard of–at least in the West.

The Chinese drone appears to function in many ways like the “Loyal Wingman” drones the U.S. and its allies are developing. Kratos Defense is developing the X-58A Valkyrie, a high speed drone designed to complement friendly fighters, while Boeing Australia unveiled its Loyal Wingman earlier this year. The drone sidekick concept is still being worked out but drones could do several things, from acting as jammers or flying diversion missions to even carrying weapons.

The LJ-1 is the first such drone to explicitly mention a suicide mission role. By swapping out payloads, the Chinese drone could effectively become a cruise missile. This is always a possibility with expendable, unmanned aircraft, but the LJ-1 is the first to advertise the capability. Drones, while much cheaper than manned aircraft, are still pretty expensive.

Heavy Military Drones Seen In Zhuhai, China
CH-4B drone on display at the Zhuhai Air Show, 2018.

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The new drone, while interesting, will run into some headwinds on the international market. China exported 163 weapons-capable drones between 2008 and 2018, and some of the customers have not been happy with their purchases. Jordan is selling off its fleet of CH-4B “Rainbow” drones, unhappy with their performance.

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