H-6 Bomber-Launched Drones Could Be In China’s Air Combat Future

Details from a Chinese state television program points to giving the H-6K missile carrier aircraft attritable drone launching capabilities.

byJoseph Trevithick|
H-6 IJ1
Chinese internet


A Chinese state television program has provided a look at possible future People's Liberation Army crewed-uncrewed teaming and swarming capabilities, including the employment of H-6K large missile carrier aircraft as launch platforms for LJ-1 drones. The LJ-1 is ostensibly intended for use as an aerial target and for other training purposes. However, Chinese state media reports, as well as independent experts and observers, have noted that its modular design and various features inherently found on aerial targets might allow it to be readily configured as a lower-end tactical uncrewed air vehicle that could operate together with crewed combat aircraft like the J-20 stealth fighter or even the H-6.

Video clips and stills from the program on CCTV-7, a People's Liberation Army (PLA) focused China Central Television (CCTV) channel, recently emerged on social media, but it is unclear exactly when it first aired. The visuals are all computer-generated but are nevertheless interesting depictions of capabilities that the PLA has an interest in, if it's not actively pursuing them already.

The CCTV-7 program's video showing an H-6K launching four LJ-1s, which then link up in a diamond formation, is particularly interesting. The H-6K is a dedicated cruise missile carrier aircraft based on the H-6 bomber design, which itself is derived from the Soviet-era Tu-16 Badger.

This is, by all indications, a previously unknown employment concept for the LJ-1. Previously, ground-based zero-length launchers that leverage a rocket-assisted takeoff concept appear to have been the only known method of getting these drones into the air. Models have been displayed in the past with other models of associated support vehicles, including trucks carrying examples of the drone, either for transportation or as part of a mobile zero-length launch system.

An LJ-1 model on display. Support vehicles, including a truck carrying one of the drones, are visible to varying degrees in the lower lefthand corner of the picture. Chinese internet

The LJ-1, which made its public debut at the Moscow International Aviation and Space Salon, better known as the MAKS airshow, in 2019, is a relatively obscure design. China's Northwestern Polytechnic University (NPWU) reportedly developed the LJ-1 in cooperation with a small aviation company called CCKW.

The LJ-1, which is powered by a single turbojet engine, has a relatively slender body with a very prominent engine inlet on the top and to the rear of its fuselage. It has two modified delta wings along with a pair of horizontal stabilizers and two canted vertical ones.

A look at the rear of a model of an LJ-1 drone. Chinese internet

As designed, the LJ-1 is intended to fly at high or low altitudes, and at high-subsonic speeds, according to available stated performance figures. With a reported overall length of around 15 and a half feet and a wingspan of just over eight feet, the drone is, generally, in the same size category as the U.S. BQM-167 target drone.

Information provided at MAKS in 2019 described the LJ-1 primarily as a recoverable flying target capable of high-G maneuvering and with at least some low observable design features, which could then be used to mimic various third and fourth-generation fighter jets, and possibly more advanced types, according to Chinese state media reports at the time.

An LJ-1 at the moment of launch. An expendable rocket booster is seen under the fuselage. Chinese internet

However, Steve Trimble, Aviation Week's Defense Editor and friend of The War Zone, reported from that year's MAKS that the NPWU and CCKW had presented the LJ-1 as having at least a somewhat modular design. Variants or derivatives could be capable of carrying “tactical operational missions" in the future, according to the outlet.

The “LJ-1 would be capable of functioning as a radar jammer or a standoff land attack missile, the Chinese developers say," Aviation Week's report said, which also indicated the drone, or a future variant or derivative thereof, might work in a collaborative role with crewed combat jets. "It could also perform a mission of interfering with infrared seekers, although it was not clear what this meant."

The latter capability could be as simple as carrying decoy flares, dispensers for which are reportedly among the payloads available for the LJ-1. The ability to fire flares, as well as release radar-confusing chaff, is a very common feature of target drones. Reports say that the LJ-1 can be fitted with systems to increase its radar and infrared signatures, devices that are also often available for aerial targets, in general.

Air-launched LJ-1s unleashed from a H-6K. (Chinese Internet)

It is worth noting that, whether they are also designed from the outset for operational use in one or more roles, target drones by their very nature have latent capabilities that can be employed in support of combat missions. The U.S. military notably demonstrated this with its employment of BQM-34 Firebee target drones to disperse chaff along various corridors to help clear routes for crewed combat aircraft in the opening phases of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In Vietnam, similar drones even carried out air-to-ground combat roles.

Regardless, it is certainly no secret that the PLA is interested in pairing drones with crewed combat aircraft, especially the stealthy J-20 fighter. The same CCTV-7 program that showed the H-6K-launched LJ-1s included depictions of a single two-seat J-20 stealth fighter flying together with three GJ-11 Sharp Sword stealthy flying wing UCAVs. The development of Sharp Sword dates back to the early 2010s, at least, with a more refined and stealthier-looking mockup breaking cover in 2019.

"The future is a big era for drone development. Important questions are: what role should drones play in future battlefields, how to team up manned and unmanned vehicles, and what tactical goal can be achieved," a PLA Air Force (PLAAF) pilot Liu Qihong said regarding teaming J-20s with drones in an interview broadcast on CCTV last year.

"If teamed with four drones during a mission, the manned vehicle [the J-20] can have a wider surveillance area and clearer sense of danger," Liu continued. "What’s more, drones can overcome long endurance periods, high temperature, and a lot of noise, which might become unbearable for human pilots."

Long before the CCTV-7 renderings emerged, The War Zone, among others, have posited that the still-in-development two-seat J-20B variant could be well suited to the role of drone controller, with the back-seater being able to take on a sort of 'mission commander' role, as you can read more about here.

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At last year's Zhuhai Airshow in China, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a state-run aviation conglomerate that includes the GJ-11's manufacturer, Hongdu Aviation Industry Group, showed a computer-generated video that depicted smaller navalized derivatives of those drones, or possibly Tian Yings, flying together as an autonomous swarm. In addition, the video showed those uncrewed aircraft deploying their own swarm of smaller air-launched decoys.

NWPU, which helped develop the LJ-1, is linked to work on highly automated deck-handling systems for navalized UCAVs for deployment onboard the PLA Navy's (PLAN) growing fleet of aircraft carriers. A presentation slide regarding some of these developments has also emerged on social media and shows, among other things, what looks to be a model of a ski-jump-equipped aircraft carrier deck – it's not immediately clear whether this is meant to depict either PLAN's Liaoning or Shangdong – with a naval GJ-11 derivative onboard.

In a future Chinese air combat ecosystem, the LJ-1 would represent a valuable lower-tier design that is less complex and lower-cost than something like the GJ-11, if also less capable. The limitations of an individual LJ-1 would be made up for to a degree by the ability to employ different configurations of these drones as part of a larger swarm. One or more of those swarms, in turn, could be deployed to work directly or indirectly with other crewed and uncrewed platforms across a broader front.

It's not hard to see how a large group of LJ-1s could simply be employed simply as a force of networked decoys. Those decoys could be used to help protect friendly forces by drawing the attention of air defense systems or, in electronic-warfare enabled, could create 'ghost' formations approaching from multiple vectors at once, confusing opponents and making it difficult for them to allocate defensive resources effectively.

Air-launched LJ-1s joining up. (Chinese Internet)

If the LJ-1 design is as reconfigurable as NPWU and CCKW have indicated it is, a swarm of these drones could potentially include additional examples that can act as sensor nodes, stand-in jammers, carriers for small munitions, or as outright kinetic weapons in their own right.

Since target drones are generally intended to be shot down, or at least have the option of being employed in destructive testing, an operationally configured LJ-1 would very likely be categorized as 'attritable,' if not entirely expendable, from the start. Broadly speaking, when it comes to aircraft, attritable refers to designs with a balance between cost and capabilities that allows commanders to be more willing to utilize them in higher-risk environments that could preclude the employment of a more exquisite platform.

It is understood that the PLA maintains fleets of obsolete fighter jets converted into drones for employment in mass waves to overwhelm and confuse enemy air defense networks during future cross-border conflicts, as well as for use as test and training assets.

When it comes to the LJ-1, large missile carrier aircraft like the H-6K air-launching them would enable the drones to be deployed closer to the operating area, allowing them to either penetrate deeper into enemy territory or simply remain on station longer. This would all but certainly be critical for employing the LJ-1s effectively at all, given that its reported endurance is only around an hour. Of course, the exact time it could remain airborne would vary depending on its operating altitude, the weight of its payload, speed, and how actively it might be maneuvering.

Depending on how robust the associated networking capabilities might be, it could be possible to pass more direct control of LJ-1s once launched to other aircraft operating forward, such as specially configured J-20Bs.

Since at least last year, pictures, seen in the Tweet below, which were taken of pages from what appears to either be a Chinese-language white paper or engineering presentation of some kind – things that China's state-run aviation companies and associated research institutes routinely publish – showing various tiers of crewed-uncrewed teaming have been circulating online. Among the concepts depicted are a J-20 controlling four flying wing-type drones providing additional sensor coverage and J-20s working together with examples of what appears to be a lower-tier uncrewed design over the course of a mission.

This is all, very broadly, akin to a future air combat operating environment that the U.S. Air Force, together with various American defense contractors, has been laying out in the past year or so. The U.S. Navy and other foreign military forces are increasingly pursuing generally similar concepts. In particular, the LJ-1 seems similar, at least in very broad strokes, in function if not necessarily in form, to numerous lower-tier developments in the United States.

American drone make Kratos notably offers a number of low-cost uncrewed aircraft intended for operational use that are derived from target drones. These include the UTAP-22 Mako loyal wingman drone base don the BQM-167 target drone. An air-launchable configuration fitted with an infrared search and track (IRST) system was seen loaded under the wing of an Air National Guard F-15C Eagle fighter jet in 2020, and the Air Wolf based on the MQM-178. These are very much of the same idea as China's combat-configured LJ-1.

Kratos UTAP-22 Mako prior to launch.

Earlier this year, Lockheed Martin also unveiled its Common Multi-Mission Truck (CMMT) and Tactical Expendable-Combat Air Vehicle (TE-CAV) concepts. Both of these are intended to perform various operational tasks, but also be low-cost enough to be expendable, or at least attritable.

Concept art Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works advanced projects division released earlier this year showing various tiers of a potential future distributed crew-uncrewed team along with a crewed F-35A Joint Strike Fighter. Three Common Multi-Mission Trucks (CMMT) are seen along the bottom, while a single Tactical Expendable-Combat Air Vehicle (TE-CAV) is seen in the upper lefthand corner. More robust designs, including a stealthy flying wing type, are also depicted along the upper righthand side of the artwork. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

Since the LJ-1 is runway independent, air-launch is not the only option for employing them operationally, either. In addition to ground-based launchers, they could be deployed from various kinds of ships or small islands, allowing them to start their mission closer to their target areas in some scenarios.

It is, of course, not immediately clear how actively the PLA may be pursuing the development of air-launched LJ-1s in any configuration or if it has a target schedule for when it might field such a capability. At the same time, Chinese state-run aviation firms have made significant progress in their ability to develop and field various tiers of uncrewed systems in recent years. Similar progress has been made in the development of supporting technologies, especially with regard to autonomy, swarming, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning. Chinese fighter pilots have already reportedly been squaring off, at least on some level, against AI-driven opponents in simulators – systems that could feed into future fully autonomous UCAV developments.

Beyond all that, as already noted, the PLA has clear ambitions to increasingly incorporate a variety of drones into its future air combat concepts of operations. This is part of a broader effort by the Chinese military to modernize its capabilities and expand its operational capacities across the board. U.S. officials have said this push is being driven now in large by a desire to be in a better position to launch an invasion of Taiwan by 2027.

Numerous wargames the U.S. military, as well as independent think tanks in the United States, have conducted in recent years have repeatedly shown that swarms of low-cost networked drones with high degrees of autonomy could be game-changing factors in a conflict over Taiwan. The PLA could very well have come to the same conclusion through its own analyses.

It remains to be seen when and in what configurations the PLA may ultimate field the LJ-1, as well as the GJ-11 and crewed-uncrewed teaming capabilities to go along with them. Still, the idea of H-6K aircraft being able to carry and launch LJ-1s for various purposes would seem to be a capability that would very much make sense and that would be reasonable within reach of China's defense industry.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com