Chinese Flying Wing Drones Launch Swarming Decoys At Enemy Warships In Industry Video

A video presentation from the Aviation Industry Corporation of China points to new swarming drone and electronic warfare ambitions.

byJoseph Trevithick|
China photo


An interesting clip from a Chinese state television segment has emerged online. Shot during the most recent iteration of the country's Zhuhai Airshow, which wrapped up earlier this month, it shows what appears to be a video presentation depicting navalized derivatives of the GJ-11 Sharp Sword stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle employing air-launched decoys to swarm a pair of surface warships.

The state-run Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) had this video running as part of its overall display at Zhuhai. Hongdu Aviation Industry Group, which makes the GJ-11, is a subsidiary of AVIC. The clip in question, seen in full in the Tweet below, also bears the logo of CCTV-7, a China Central Television channel that has been primarily focused on programming related to the country's People's Liberation Army (PLA) since 2019. The CCTV-7 footage does not appear to show the entirety of the AVIC video.

What we do see of the AVIC video in CCTV-7's footage begins with one of the apparent GJ-11 derivatives taking off from the deck of what looks to be a Type 075 amphibious assault ship. The first of these ships entered service earlier this year, representing a major milestone for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and there are already two more in different stages of construction. The PLAN is expected to eventually acquire a fleet of at least eight of these ships in the coming years.

A screengrab from the AVIC video depicting what appears to be stealthy UCAV based on the GJ-11 taking off from a Type 075 amphibious assault ship., CCTV-7 capture via Twitter
The People's Liberation Army Navy's first Type 075 amphibious assault ship., VIA @_老年_ FROM WEIBO

This is immediately intriguing in that it indicates that the PLAN may be interested in operating fixed-wing unmanned aircraft, including unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) like the GJ-11, from its Type 075s, in addition to flying them from the decks of its growing fleet of supercarriers. Last year, what looked to be a mockup of a drone helicopter had appeared on the deck of the first of these amphibious assault ships while it was still undergoing initial trials ahead of its commissioning.

The video then moves on to show a flight of four of these UCAVs deploying air-launched decoys. The general exterior shape of the decoys is extremely similar to that of Raytheon's ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD) series, which you can read all about here. MALDs are essentially small cruise missiles that have electronic warfare suites in lieu of traditional warheads, which, depending on the exact variant, allow them to jam enemy radars or attempt to fool their operators into believing that large groups of aircraft or missiles are coming at them from various directions.

A group of air-launched decoys, with lines running between them to show that they're networked together, seen in the AVIC video., CCTV-7 capture via Twitter
The air-launched decoys in AVIC's video look extremely similar to Raytheon's ADM-160 Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD) series, an example of which is seen here, , Raytheon

The AVIC video even mimics those from Raytheon itself promoting the MALD family, which often show the decoys morphing into "ghost" aircraft as a visual representation of the false signatures these decoys pump out. In the case of the Chinese footage, the aircraft depicted may be intended to represent a long-rumored, but still not officially confirmed navalized variant of the FC-31 stealth fighter

"Ghost aircraft" seen in the AVIC video representing the false signatures generated by the air-launched decoys. Their shape may be meant to reflect the FC-31 stealth fighter design, or a navalized variant thereof., CCTV-7 capture via Twitter
The first FC-31 prototype takes off at the 2014 Zhuhai Airshow., WC/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Raytheon promotional videos for MALD seen below show general scenarios that are very similar to what is depicted in the AVIC footage.

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The UCAVs and their decoys then approach two enemy warships, one of which fires a surface-to-air missile at one of the faked aircraft. The last bit of footage we see is of six of the drones swarming these ships. Each one is shown aiming a beam of some kind at them, which could represent an onboard electronic warfare system or even a directed-energy weapon.

A swarm of stealthy drones hit two warships with "beams," which could represent electronic warfare or directed energy weapon attacks, in AVIC's video., CCTV-7 capture via Twitter

It is important to note that it's unclear how much AVIC's video presentation reflects aircraft and other systems, as well as concepts of operations to go with them, that the Chinese are actively pursuing now. At the same time, it does depict capabilities that it's hard to believe the PLA would not be interested in. Stealthy UCAVs launching decoys and otherwise capable of conducting swarming operations, which inherently have the ability to overwhelm defenders, would be immensely valuable in support of maritime operations, as well as those over land. 

Beyond being able to penetrate to targets themselves using these tactics, they could help neutralize enemy defenses to open a pathway for follow-on strikes, including by non-stealth platforms. GJ-11s, future derivatives, or other similar unmanned designs, could also serve as launch platforms for swarms of smaller drones, as well. This new swarm could carry their own electronic warfare systems to act as stand-in jammers or operate as loitering munitions with the ability to carry out kinetic strikes. In the maritime context, small loitering munitions might not necessarily have the ability to sink enemy ships, but could cause mission kills, or otherwise severely degrade the capabilities of those vessels, by targeting specific systems, such as radar arrays and communications antennas.

The complete capability set outlined in the AVIC video is also just another example of China's long-standing willingness to observe what its principal competitors, especially the United States, are doing and then seek to replicate those technologies, if not outright clone entire systems, often with the aid of very active espionage efforts. The War Zone had already noted this general trend when reporting on the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) FH-97, a stealthy-looking unmanned aircraft design that first appeared at Zhuhai this year that is nearly identical, at least outwardly, to the XQ-58A Valkyrie from U.S. manufacturer Kratos.

A mockup of the FH-97, along with other smaller drone designs, on display at the 2021 iteration of the Zhuhai Airshow., CHINESE INTERNET VIA TWITTER

Beyond the individual components in the AVIC video, such as the MALD-like decoy, what is depicted is what could easily be part of a larger emerging networked electronic warfare ecosystem. For instance, the clip is reminiscent in a number of extremely broad strokes to what is known about the U.S. Navy's shadowy  Netted Emulation of Multi-Element Signature against Integrated Sensors (NEMESIS) program, which you can read more about in this War Zone feature. At NEMESIS' core is a system-of-systems electronic warfare concept that includes things like drone swarms, ships, and submarines, all networked together to maximize their capabilities, with a particular focus on generating fleets of "ghost" aircraft and warships to confuse enemies and upend their decision-making cycles.

Other kinds of swarming capabilities and networked effects, such as enabling groups of precision-guided munitions to operate cooperatively, are now areas of great interest across the U.S. military, as well as among a number of its allies and partners. China itself has already demonstrated significant progress in the development of many relevant technologies, such as swarming capabilities and stealthy unmanned aircraft designs, that it could leverage to support work of the kinds of capabilities seen in the AVIC video.

The Chinese government “increasing inventory levels and the sophistication of their weapons and modernizing redundant systems throughout the kill chains that support their weapons,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said just last month at the annual Air Force Association Air, Space, and Cyber Conference conference in Washington, D.C. “Hypersonic weapons, a full range of anti-satellite systems, plus cyber, electronic warfare, and challenging air-to-air weapons" were among the specific areas where China has been focusing its efforts, he added.

All told, while we can't say how close China may be to acquiring the capabilities seen in the AVIC video, they are certainly in line with the country's general ambitions, as well as its steadily growing ability to turn them into operational realities.

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