All The Air Combat Developments Out Of China’s Massive Air Show (Updated)

The latest iteration of China’s Zhuhai Airshow will formally open tomorrow and we are already seeing all-new aircraft designs, including a number of advanced drones, and improved variants of existing types. Various new and advanced air-launched weapons and other systems are also on display at the event, which is really more of a massive trade expo for China’s defense industry than a traditional air show. It perhaps offers the biggest glimpse into what China’s capabilities look like today and what its military technology aspirations are for tomorrow. As always, many concepts have to be taken with a grain of salt, but China has proven its ability to pursue much of what it presents at these shows, making claims about widespread ‘vaporware’ of the past less potent today.

Pictures, videos, and other information has already emerged on social media from the show. We’ve already seen what appears to be a previously unseen stealthy flying wing-type drone from the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG) and another new uncrewed design from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) that at least draws heavy influences from the Boeing Australia MQ-28 Ghost Bat. A new air-launched ballistic missile that the H-6K large missile carrier aircraft is capable of firing has also been unveiled. Now, just a day before opening, a ton of new developments have occurred that are really worth pointing out.

So, with this in mind, The War Zone has put together a round-up of aerial combat-related items that are worth bringing attention to.

From The Show

This year’s Zhuhai Airshow is the first time that J-20 stealth fighters will be on display on the ground for the general public. The jets have participated in previous iterations of the event, but in flybys only.

As a result, new, more detailed views of the J-20 stealth fighter‘s cockpit have emerged. From what we can see now, the J-20 appears to have a single large wide-area flat-screen digital multi-function display for the pilot to use, along with the wide-angle heads-up display. Such an arrangement provides superior flexibility and situational awareness compared to older multi-screen layouts.

This year’s Zhuhai Airshow has already yielded a number of other detailed shots of the J-20’s various external features, as well. The video in the Tweet immediately below just gives a good look at the range of motion of the aircraft’s various control surfaces.

A concept for a Chinese stealthy tailless sixth-generation combat jet is also on display at Zhuhai, but appears to be very crude in what it actually shows. It may be more intended to reflect potential future capabilities than any particular active development. That being said, China’s aerospace industry is known to be working on a sixth-generation combat jet and similar core designs have previously appeared in publicly available Chinese aviation engineering white papers, as you can read more about here. In recent years, this general planform has also more or less emerged as the default when it comes to publicly-discussed future fighter jet-like combat aircraft concepts, including those related to America’s Next Generation Air Dominance initiative, or NGAD.

Regardless, the tailless combat jet model appears to be more real than the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (AVIC) Ultravic kiosk. This area of Zhuhai contains an entirely fictitious ‘space fighter’ that looks at least as if it would be more at home in an anime, if it’s not actually based on a particular design, and seems to be solely intended to promote general interest and investment in AVIC.

It is now confirmed that the aerial tanker version of the Y-20 airlifter is designated the YY-20 (possibly YY-20A), rather than YU-20 or Y-20U as had been previously used to refer to these aircraft. Detailed shots of the YY-20 at Zhuhai also show that it has redesigned landing gear sponsors, which come to much sharper points at their fronts and rears. The overall shape is reminiscent, in broad strokes, of the landing gear sponsons on the Airbus A400M airlifter/tanker.

A new variant of the KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft, possibly designated the KJ-500A, which features an aerial refueling probe, has made its debut appearance at Zhuhai. The addition of the aerial refueling capability will allow these aircraft to stay on station longer, even in operating areas that require longer transits to get to.

A new video, seen below, has emerged with additional details about CASC’s MQ-28 clone, which is called the FH-97A, confirming a number of things posted in The War Zone‘s initial analysis, which you can find here. As expected, the computer-generated presentation shows these drones operating primarily in the air-to-air role networked together with crew J-20 stealth fighters, as well as each other. The clip shows crewed-uncrewed teams of J-20s and FH-97As flying in formation to avoid and otherwise penetrate through enemy air defenses and working cooperatively in air-to-air combat against what appears to be a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighter.

The video also confirms that the FH-97A is expected to be equipped with multi-spectral sensors in a stealthy windowed enclosure on top of the nose and behind transparencies on either side of the forward fuselage for spotting and tracking threats, as The War Zone had initially suggested was likely the case. As we thought, its primary armament will be miniature infrared-guided air-to-air missiles in a pop-out launcher nestled in the bottom of the fuselage, but the clip says it could be armed for air-to-ground missions, too.

The computer-generated presentation says that the FH-97A’s overall design is focused on stealth and maneuverability, and shows that it will take off and land from conventional runways. The clip says it will be equipped with a distributed ‘mesh’ data-sharing networking capability and will able to operate either together with crewed platforms, where it will act essentially as an “external bomb bay” for those aircraft as part of a complete “closed-loop attack chain,” or autonomously.

It has been announced at this year’s Zhuhai Airshow that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has officially adopted the CAIG Wing Loong-10 jet-powered drone, giving it the military designation WZ-10. These drones will ostensibly be used as electronic warfare platforms. CAIG has said in the past that the design, also known as the Cloud Shadow, can be armed with various air-to-ground and anti-ship weapons, and it is certainly possible that the PLA will eventually acquire versions for use in other roles, too.

CAIG has also unveiled a new member of its Wing Loong armed drone family, the Wing Loong 3, which features, among other things, larger wings than the preceding Wing Loong 2. Work on the Wing Loong 3 dates back to at least 2018, if not before. It is as least very closely related to the Wing Loong 2, which first emerged publicly in 2015 and is roughly analogous to the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper. The original Wing Loong design, or Wing Loong 1, was a smaller design more similar in size and capability to the American MQ-1 Predator.

CAIG says that the Wing Loong 3 has a maximum takeoff weight of 6,200 kilograms (13,669 pounds), versus the Wing Loong 2’s 4,200 kilograms (9,259 pounds). Data the company provided at Zhuhai also says that the Wing Loong 3 has an absolute maximum range of 10,000 kilometers (just under 6,214 miles) and can stay aloft for up to 40 hours at a time, substantially greater than the Wing Long 2’s 3,000-kilometer (1,864 miles) range and 20-30 hour endurance. The drone’s actual range and endurance on any particular sortie would, of course, be heavily dependent on its exact configuration and stores loadout. Extended-range operations would also require a robust beyond-line-of-sight data link and/or a higher degree of autonomy.

Interestingly, the Wing Loong 3 on display at Zhuhai, which may simply be a mockup, is seen loaded with a PL-10E infrared-guided air-to-air missile, what looks to be a sonobuoy launcher, and a small air-launched uncrewed aircraft under its wings, among other stores.

The air-launched drone is very broadly reminiscent visually of the General Atomics Sparrowhawk. It’s not clear if the Chinese design is intended to be recovered in flight like Sparrowhawk, but it could still similarly intended to provide valuable stand-off capabilities for its non-stealthy parent in higher-end threat environments.

The sonobouy launcher is a capability that is also now being seen on other drones, including General Atomics’ Reaper family, and could allow the Wing Loong 3 to provide valuable additional capacity in support of anti-submarine operations.

CAIG also has a Wing Loong 1E drone on display. This is an advanced version of the older Wing Loong 1 that first emerged earlier this year and features the ability to carry more stores, among other improvements. The “E” in the designation could indicate an export focus. The Wing Loong 1 series is already one notable example of China’s successes in selling armed and otherwise more robust military drones on the international market, with examples reportedly in service or set to enter service in the coming years in a dozen countries.

New close-up views of the Guizhou WZ-7 Soaring Dragon, which features an unusual jointed wing design, have emerged from this year’s Zhuhai preparations. The WZ-7, which made its public debut at Zhuhai last year, is understood to be a high-altitude, long-endurance design primarily focused on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) has again brought an example of its Tian Ying, or Sky Hawk, flying wing drone. This uncrewed aircraft design was first unveiled at Zhuhai in 2018, at which time the company said it had already been in development for four years. The type is something akin to a small stealthy UCAV/ISR flying wing platform and it has been indicated on multiple occasions that it, or a version of it, could end up being deployed on carriers.

With commercial-off-the-shelf uncrewed aerial systems armed with improvised munitions only continuing to show themselves to be real threats on modern battlefields, it’s no surprise that Chinese companies are offering more robust designs. This includes the Loong 4, a hexacopter, and the Loong 5, a so-called “hybrid” vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capable design with pusher props at the ends of its twin tail booms, as well as vertical rotors on underwing booms. These drones are seen in the computer-generated videos in the Tweets below armed mortar bomb-style projectiles.

What looks to be a mockup of an uncrewed hypersonic testbed called the MD-22 has been displayed at the show. It’s unclear how close this design may be to coming to fruition and whether there is any expectation that it could be developed in an operational platform. The design is reportedly expected to be 10.8 meters long, have a wingspan of 4.5 meters, weigh around 1 ton empty and have a maximum takeoff weight of some 4 tons, and be able to hit speeds of up to Mach 7 on sorties that could see the drone cover distances up to 8,000 kilometers. The range figure seems unlikely, but it may just represent aspirational ideas or even similar concepts with more realistic metrics that are under development.

Whatever the case, the MD-22 does mirror similar developments in the United States, such as the Stratolaunch Talon-A, which is intended primarily to support research and development and test and evaluation activities related to other hypersonic systems, including aircraft and weapons. The Chinese military actively pursuing a number of hypersonic capabilities that the MD-22 could help in the development of, at least in part, among other potential uses.

Examples of the most advanced members of the PLA’s helicopter fleets – the Z-20 transport helicopter, the Z-8L transport helicopter, and the Z-10 attack helicopter – are unsurprisingly at Zhuhai. Close-up looks at one of the Z-20s show various sensors and modern defensive systems.

In terms of advanced rotorcraft, AVIC has put a model of a previously unseen tilt-rotor design on display. The design is reminiscent of Bell’s V-280 Valor, especially in terms of the rotating nacelle design.

CASC also has a model of a smaller uncrewed tilt-rotor design, broadly reminiscent of the Bell V-247, on display.

Chinese firm MASTARS, which describes itself as focused primarily on rapid prototype and low-volume manufacturing, has a model at its booth at Zhuhai showing an advanced compound helicopter type with dual main rotors and a pusher prop, as well as small stub wings on either side of the fuselage for weapons and other stores. It’s unclear whether this design, which looks very similar, at least externally, to the Boeing-Sikorsky SB>1 Defiant compound helicopter, reflects an active development effort that MASTARS is in some way involved in.

AVIC is displaying what could be a new variant or derivative of the PL-10 air-to-air missile with some type of radar seeker instead of infrared guidance.

What appears to be a new stealthy-looking air-launched store has appeared at this year’s Zhuhai. AKF98A is seen written on its side, but what its formal nomenclature might be is unclear, as is its exact function. It would appear to be designed with some kind of integrated propulsion system, like a small jet engine, which could point to it being a new air-launched cruise missile.

Some experts and observers have suggested it might be a dispenser of some kind, which could be filled with submunitions or other payloads, like small expendable electronic warfare jammers. Two years ago, an unpowered Chinese submunition-filled glide bomb emerged, which looked to be broadly similar in form and function to the U.S. AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW). It’s possible that the AKF98A could reflect a desire for a powered weapon with greater stand-off range in this same general category, similar to past U.S. military efforts to develop a powered JSOW derivative.

Pictures of the AFK98A showed it next to another unpowered precision-guided weapon, which appears to be a laser-guided bomb in the 1,000-kilogram weight class. It’s not immediately clear if this weapon, which looks to be designated YJ1000-1 is actually new, as it appears very similar, at least externally, to a previously seen weapon called the JL-5. It is, of course, possible that the YJ1000-1 reflects an improvement on the core design or is otherwise a variant of some kind.

AVIC has brought a separate powered precision-guided munition to this year’s Zhuhai called the LS-6. This weapon, which has pop-out wings that would also give it additional stand-off range, looks broadly akin to a concept for a powered version of the U.S. Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) family of GPS-assisted Inertial Navigation System (INS) guided bombs that Boeing has shown in the past.

Various other older air-launched precision-guided weapons types, as well as dumb bombs, are also on display.

Jet engine development has long been an area where Chinese companies have notably lagged behind their western counterparts, but some firms like Shenyang have made some notable progress in this field in recent years. A number of designs that appear to be either variants or derivatives of the domestically-produced Shenyang WS-10 are on display at Zhuhai, including at least two different types with thrust vectoring capabilities.

This includes one with a stealthy-looking exhaust arrangement with the ability to vector thrust in at least two directions (2D), up and down, as well as an example with a more conventional exhaust configuration and 3D thrust vectoring. The stealthier type, which may be designated the WS-19, could be intended for more advanced versions of the existing stealth fighters, like the J-20 or the J-35, or a new sixth-generation combat jet. The 2D nozzle looks very much like the F-22’s low-observable arrangement that is attacked to its F119 turbofans.

Shenyang’s parent company, the Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC), also has what is reportedly a new high-pass jet engine on display. The design looks more intended for commercial, rather than military use, though of course it could be used to power larger military types, like future variants of the Y-20.

That’s it for now, but the Zhuhai Airshow runs from tomorrow through the end of the coming weekend. We’ll be sure to keep you in the loop as the show unfolds.

Update 11/8/22:

The 2022 Zhuhai Airshow has now officially opened and there are some additional items of note that have emerged already.

The previously unseen stealthy flying wing drone that first emerged last week has now been identified as the CS-5000T. There do not appear to be any additional details about this uncrewed aircraft so far, but this nomenclature is curious. The only other known drones with similar designations, the CS-300T and CS-550T, have both been described publicly as target drones for use in training, as well as in support of research and development and test and evaluation activities. The CS-5000T is a substantially larger and more robust design that seems very unlikely to be intended as a target.

Chinese state television channel CCTV-7, which is focused on People’s Liberation Army (PLA) related programming, has reported that the CASC CH-5 drone that is on display at the show is depicted as being fitted with underwing electronic warfare and sonobuoy dispenser pods.

Pictures have now emerged showing that the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) is displaying a new drone at Zhuhai this year that is at least heavily influenced by the design of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2. The TB2 is an armed uncrewed aircraft that has gained significant international notoriety in recent years as a result of its operational use by the military of Azerbaijan against Armenian forces during a brief conflict in 2020 and then more recently by Ukraine’s armed forces against their Russian opponents. TB2s have also been employed in the civil conflict in Libya.

We also have additional views of the J-20 stealth fighters at the show, along with dramatic imagery from their aerial demonstration today.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.