An image has emerged online of what looks to be several official or semi-official pins or similarly sized metallic items depicting a variety of products from China's Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, also known as the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation. One of these appears to be a previously unseen design, which could be manned or unmanned, but is almost certainly related to a still unidentified stealthy flying wing unmanned aircraft design that the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, Chengdu's parent company, first displayed publicly with virtually no fanfare at the biennial Zhuhai Airshow in 2018.
Chinese military aviation expert Andreas Rupprecht was among the first to spot the pin after it appeared on Chinese social media. The original post indicated that the metallic items all represented the results of projects that Chengdu's 611th Institute design bureau had been responsible for developing. The other four aircraft depicted are the Sky Wing unmanned aircraft, the J-10 fighter jet, the J-20 stealth fighter, and the FC-1 fighter jet. The FC-1 was a joint development between Chengdu and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, which is also known as the JF-17 Thunder. The pins are not of a common scale, with the J-20 and FC-1 examples being of a similar size, despite the two planes being of wildly different proportions in real life.
The pin for the fifth, unknown aircraft depicts a flying wing-type design with something similar to a 'cranked kite' planform, the same general layout as Northrop Grumman's X-47B drone. It looks to be a stealthy design, or at least one intended to have stealthy characteristics, and has two flush-mounted intakes on either side of a central hump in the fuselage. A notch in the rear fuselage suggests there is a single exhaust and, in turn, only a single-engine.
It is not entirely clear from the photograph whether the pin shows a cockpit or not, though there do appear to be lines that could represent framing for windows. Still, even if there is an outline of what might look to be a cockpit, especially at this very small scale, that doesn't necessarily mean this would be a manned design. Star Systems’ Star Shadow drone has a similar general layout and structural features that could give the impression of a cockpit in a similarly sized model, but there is no indication that this is a pilot optional design.
In fact, the pin appears to be a dead ringer for an unnamed and apparently unmanned aircraft that the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) put on display at the 2018 Zhuhai Airshow. However, the aircraft on display at Zhuhai notably lacked the two intakes, instead having a single central intake more akin to other flying wing drones, such as the X-47B or the RQ-170.
AVIC never officially said that the drone was a Chengdu product, though some observers had suggested that this could be the case at the time. Steve Trimble, a good friend of The War Zone and Aviation Week's defense editor, had the following to say after seeing the design at Zhuhai:
"On Nov. 5, Avic parked a small flying wing UAS in one of its static display corrals. The apparently subscale demonstrator is the only aircraft in the Avic static display area without an identifying placard. Asked to identify the aircraft’s name, an Avic worker in the display area declined, saying it was only available for pictures.
"The mystery Avic aircraft is unlikely to be a true stealthy system. It has exposed rivets and a protruding access panel atop the fuselage. But its cranked-kite wing shape and semi-hexagonal inlet add new dimensions to Avic’s flight research."
The more robust and potentially manned aircraft that the pin depicts definitely supports the assessment that the relatively small and apparently unmanned aircraft at the airshow was a subscale demonstrator of some kind. Chengdu's heavy focus on fighter jets might mean that this is a concept for manned sixth-generation stealth fighter or a possible large unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV). The general configuration is similar in many respects to concepts for notional sixth-generation U.S. fighter jets that have also been emerging in recent years. Chengdu's J-20s are growing in operational service with the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), so the firm may already be beginning to look into what comes next.
It remains unclear, though, how this design and its development, now tied to Chengdu, might otherwise fit in with other manned and unmanned stealthy flying projects underway in China. As noted, Star Systems is working on a very similar looking unmanned aircraft to the on that the pin reflects. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) also unveiled a cranked kite UCAV design, the CH-7, at Zhuhai in 2018 with very broad similarities to the X-47B.
In addition, the Xi'an Aircraft Industrial Corporation, another AVIC subsidiary, is reportedly working on the development of a manned heavy bomber known as the H-20. There have been no official pictures or artwork clearly showing this aircraft, or even concept designs, but it is widely reported that it is a flying wing-type design in the same general vein as the U.S. Air Force's B-2 Spirit. The War Zone has previously explored the available information on the H-20, which rumors have said China might unveil this year, in detail.
There is a possibility that Chengdu demonstrator and the design depicted in the pin might reflect a regionally-focused stealthy bomber concept to compete with the JH-XX that the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, yet another AVIC subsidiary, is reportedly developing. It might also be an alternative developmental effort in case that program runs into trouble. Models and art depicting the Shenyang design show a more conventionally configured stealth design, which you can read about in depth in this past War Zone story.
AVIC is a state-owned enterprise, as well, and Chengdu's stealthy flying wing development could be part of a cooperative program with another one of the subsidiaries, such as Xi'an or Shenyang. Beyond that, the pin would seem to indicate that Chengdu has plans for its design far beyond what ended up on display at Zhuhai last year.
The pin would hardly be the first time we have seen indications of future aviation developments emerge in more discreet and anecdotal formats, as well. Last year, the PLAAF appeared to make passing reference to the H-20 in a prominently featured logo at an official gala touting the country's plans for a “first-class strategic bomber division." Months before that, Ma Hongzhong, a lead designer a CASIC, had dropped deals and a censored photo of what turned out to be the company's latest edition to its Tian Ying drone line via the firm's official WeChat social media account.
Whatever the case, the pin seems to be yet another indicator of how China is aggressively pursuing multiple new stealth aircraft concepts, both manned and unmanned. This notably already includes various types that could serve as UCAVs or important developmental stepping stones toward such aircraft. All of this has come as the United States has shelved its own UCAV developments or moved them entirely into the classified realm.
Chengdu's stealthy flying wing design makes it clear that China's aviation industry is not slowing down in this regard and continues to focus on making huge strides in the development of increasingly advanced combat aircraft, as well as other military technologies.
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