What appears to be a new and stealthy-looking Chinese drone has emerged at Zhuhai International Airport ahead of the biennial airshow and trade expo set to formally open there next week. There are indications that the drone may be an actual prototype, rather than just a mockup. There is already speculation that this could be the first look at a new unmanned combat air vehicle, or UCAV, designed to work closely together with J-20 stealth fighters, among other types.
Pictures and videos showing the drone are now circulating on social media after its apparent arrival recently at Zhuhai. China's state-run aerospace companies routinely debut new uncrewed and crewed military aircraft designs, as well as other advanced technological developments, at what is formally known as the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition. The 2022 iteration of the show is currently scheduled to officially open on November 8 and run through November 13, but work is already well underway to get things ready.
So far, the available imagery offers limited views of the drone due to the angles they have been taken from and a camouflage covering that was eventually removed, but had initially obscured certain portions of the aircraft. There are unconfirmed reports that the uncrewed aircraft is a design from the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG) and does appear to have been put on display right next to an example of that company's Wing Loong-10 drone, also known as the Cloud Shadow. Some posts on social media say that the new drone could be a 'loyal wingman' type design from CAIG, which is sometimes also referred to as Chengfei.
From what we can see in the pictures and video clips available so far, the drone has a tailless flying-wing-type planform, though the exact layout of its wing structure is not entirely clear. It also has a prominent top-mounted air intake and circular exhaust for what looks to be a single jet engine. It's worth noting that when it comes to stealthy drones, it's possible the exhaust configuration would be further refined into a better low-observable arrangement as the design matures and testing progresses. Russia's Hunter UCAV took this route, for example. It's also possible, this aircraft is not designed with high-end low-observability in mind, especially from the rear aspect.
There are no readily visible features that provide clear indications about what payloads the drone may be able to carry, which in turn could provide more insight into what its intended roles and missions might be. There is, however, a large open section visible on the left side of the central fuselage that could be a payload bay of some kind. The nose section also looks to be reasonably big enough to accommodate a radar of some kind, among other sensors or flight systems.
In addition, there are a number of indications that the drone could be a real prototype, instead of just a full-scale model. This includes a covered flight data probe at the front of the nose, a 'remove before flight' safety tag on the left underside of the nose section, and relatively robust-looking nose and main landing gear assemblies. Of course, none of this precludes the possibility that this is still a mockup or that if it is a prototype of some sort, it is a non-flying one intended for testing purposes on the ground.
Regardless, it is interesting that this uncrewed aircraft has emerged at Zhuhai just two weeks or so after a video showing what could be a new stealthy-looking Chinese flying-wing-type drone in flight popped up on social media. Star Systems' Star Shadow and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China's (AVIC) CS-550T, as well as the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) CH-7, were discussed as possibilities for what was seen in the clip.
The footage was unfortunately very low quality, but it seemed unlikely to show a CH-7. What is seen flying might also show some kind of subscale test article or even a hobbyist's radio-controlled model. You can read more about all this in The War Zone's initial analysis of the clip here.
Whether or not there is any link between the mysterious drone that has now appeared at Zhuhai appears and the video is presently unknown, but the newly emerged design looks to be unrelated to the CH-7, Star Shadow, or CS-550T, at least based on what we've seen on those designs in models and mockups so far.
Earlier this month, Chinese state-run television channel CCTV-7, which is dedicated to People's Liberation Army (PLA) related programming, also aired a feature focusing on crewed-uncrewed teaming. It included, among other things, depictions of a two-seat J-20B stealth fighter flying together with what looked to be four Hongdu GJ-11 Sharp Sword UCAVs.
The War Zone, among others, has long posted that drone controller could be among the roles and missions for the J-20B, with the addition of the backseater making the jet better suited to this task and the additional workload that comes with it. It has also long been suggested that the GJ-11, a prototype of which first flew in 2013, or a version or derivative thereof, would be one choice for the loyal wingman role. It would not necessarily be surprising that Chengdu would be interested in offering a competing companion drone for the J-20, which it produces.
No matter what, the PLA has clear ambitions when it comes to adding multiple tiers of uncrewed aircraft alongside crewed aircraft in its future air combat operations, as you can read more about here. The new drone at Zhuhai may itself well represent a different balance in complexity, performance, and overall low observability, compared to things like the stealthier iteration of the Sharp Sword design that emerged in 2019. We also don't know how attritable – a term that generally refers to balancing cost and capabilities in such a way as to make the risk of losing an uncrewed platform more acceptable when compared to more exquisite types – any of these drones are intended to be.
If nothing else, the new flying wing drone's appearance at Zhuhai is just the latest evidence of the continued interest on the part of the PLA in increasingly advanced uncrewed designs. As The War Zone has noted on a number of occasions in recent years, including when discussing designs on display at previous iterations of the Zhuhai airshow, China's state-run aerospace companies continue to demonstrate real and still-growing capacity to develop and deliver stealthy and other advanced drones of various types of for real operational use.
It will be interesting to see what new information and visuals will emerge regarding this mystery flying wing drone at Zhuhai both as preparations for the show continue now and after it officially opens next week.
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