China looks to have launched an odd mini-aircraft carrier of sorts that is intended to launch and recover small aerial drones earlier this year. A model of this catamaran vessel appeared at this year's Zhuhai Airshow, where it was ostensibly described as a platform for mimicking enemy "electronic" systems during training exercises. This ship will be able to simulate hostile drone swarms, along with other kinds of threats, such as high-volume anti-ship missile strikes and distributed electronic warfare attacks. It also reflects the Chinese military's interest in operational swarming capabilities, and especially in the maritime domain.
Earlier this week, Twitter user @HenriKenhmann, who runs the website East Pendulum, was able to find a picture online of the ship during an apparent launch ceremony in May. The photograph shows an unusual cartoon shark motif painted on the outside of one of the ship's twin hulls, very similar to what was seen on the model at Zhuhai. This model has received more recent attention as it was displayed alongside one depicting a rail-based training aid that has also turned out to be in operational use, as you can read more about here.
Another picture, seen below, from what would seem to be the same event shows a poster depicting the ship, along with the logo for the state-run China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, or CASIC. The model at Zhuhai was at a CASIC booth.
The model of the vessel at Zhuhai depicted it carrying five relatively small tandem-rotor drone helicopters on a large open foredeck in front of the main superstructure. In addition, it showed multiple large antenna domes, which might be associated with high-bandwidth communications systems that would be useful for controlling large groups of unmanned helicopters. The domes were mounting on a large tower on top of the superstructure that would offer a very good location just for positioning line-of-sight control links.
As for the drones themselves, the CASIC booth also had a separate model of one of them showing a bar underneath the fuselage with what appears to be some kind of radiofrequency signal emitter installed on either end. What could be other antennas are seen jutting out from the sides of the fuselage and the portly design points to some degree of internal payload capacity.
There was a small sign next to the model at Zhuhai with descriptions of the ship in Chinese and English. Available pictures of the sign do not provide a clear view of all of the English text, but part of it reads "Multifunctional Integrated Electronic Blue Army System." In Chinese military parlance, mock opponents in training exercises are referred to as the "Blue Army." This is in direct contrast to how the U.S. military and other western armed forces describe generic simulated enemies as the "Red Force."
Based on this description, and from what we can see of the ship's design and that of the drones on its deck, it's not hard to imagine how it might be employed in maritime exercises both far out to sea and in littoral areas. For realistic training against swarms, it would be necessary to sortie lots of drones at once.
Beyond that, the unmanned helicopters could pump out signals reflecting the signatures of various kinds of missiles, or even just waves of manned or unmanned aircraft. The rotary-wing drones would be fitted with electronic warfare systems to carry out electronic attacks, as well. All of this would provide a relatively low-cost way to simulate swarms, along with other kinds of aerial threats during drills, and do so across a broad area.
The large open decks on the ship in front of and behind the superstructure might provide room for the addition of other capabilities. Catapults or static launchers for fixed-wing drones, including those designed specifically as targets, as well as recovery systems, could be installed in those spaces to expand the kinds of threats the vessel would be to simulate.
While the Chinese military is often discussed as a source of these kinds of threats, as a result, it is certainly well aware of the operational risks that drone swarms, advanced anti-ship missiles, and electronic warfare capabilities pose to its own forces. China's rapid modernization of its armed forces has very much prompted the U.S. military, as well as those of other countries in the Pacific, to work to improve their own capabilities in these same functional areas, especially with respect to future high-end maritime conflicts.
At the same time, it's not at all hard to see how this vessel could be a stepping stone to an actual operational capability, if it doesn't simply reflect systems already in service clandestinely now. China has made steady advances in recent years in the development of drone swarm capabilities, as seen in the video below, often leveraging advancing artificial intelligence and machine learning technology in the process.
Small drone carriers operating in conjunction with larger surface action groups could be extremely useful for disrupting enemy maritime operations, both at sea and in the air overhead, during an actual crisis. A ship like this could potentially direct drone swarms at targets ashore or wreak havoc on air defenses, enabling more traditional capabilities to be more effective.
Just by themselves, swarms of unmanned aircraft have an inherent ability to confuse and overwhelm enemy forces, making it hard for an opponent to prioritize threats and apply their own resources effectively. In addition, networked swarms offer immense flexibility since individual drones do not need to perform all of the mission sets that the larger group is expected to carry out. As such, any single unmanned aircraft in the swarm might only be configured to carry sensors, electronic warfare systems, or even a small warhead.
All of this applies just as much in the maritime domain as it does on land. A swarm could fan out and launch both kinetic and non-kinetic attacks on multiple ships from different vectors at once. A drone with a relatively small warhead could achieve a mission kill on a large warship by targeting key systems, such as radars or communications arrays. The loss of those capabilities could severely limit an enemy vessel's combat utility until repair could be made and make it far more vulnerable to follow-up attacks.
These are all capabilities that the Chinese military is clearly interested in. The state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) showed a video presentation at Zhuhai this year, seen in the Tweet below, depicting flying wing-type drones taking off from the deck of an amphibious assault ship, launching decoys, and then swarming enemy warships with what appear to be electronic warfare attacks.
Of course, a dedicated drone carrier would not automatically be necessary to launch drone swarms. China has demonstrated high-volume drone launch systems that could be fitted to virtually any cargo or military vessel and they're not alone in doing so with an eye toward maritime operations. The U.S. military has been exploring similar capabilities for use on manned surface warships and submarines, as well as unmanned surface and underwater vessels.
The threat swarms pose, including to warships, is real very now. Back in 2019, multiple U.S. Navy destroyers were swarmed by drones over a period of a number of nights. As of April of this year, the service said it had still not been able to identify those unmanned aircraft or their operators. As The War Zone has pointed out in great detail, it is likely that intelligence-gathering operations leveraging swarming drone technologies against sensitive U.S. assets are already happening.
Above all else, the fact that this catamaran mini-aircraft carrier is not just a model, but is a real mothership to help train against swarms only reinforces how seriously China views this threat as it builds up its naval capabilities.
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