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China is building drone planes for its aircraft carriers

  • Published
  • By Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer
  • Eastern Arsenal by CASI


Full report and graphics: https://www.popsci.com/china-drone-planes-aircraft-carrier

They're robotics wingmen for China's carrier pilots.

Type 003 Aircraft Carrier China

TYPE 003

This display at the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution (China's official military museum) in 2016 shows a nuclear-powered carrier with stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicles.

Oedo Soldier

The Chinese military is bringing its drone and aircraft carrier programs together, pulling unmanned aerial systems onto carriers as robotic wingmen for pilots.

Shi Wen, the chief engineer of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC)'s attack drone family, told the Global Times that China is working on drones capable of flying from aircraft carriers. This program would be China's response to the U.S. Navy's UCLASS program, which proved drones' ability to take off and land from aircraft carriers, and the U.S. MQ-25 Stingray program, which will deploy refueling tanker drones to carriers in the coming years.

China Sharp Sword stealth UCAV Lijian


The Lijian drone could be tweaked to better serve aircraft carriers.

Hongjian via China Defense Forum

While China's two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the nearly completed CV-17, have ski ramps that would likely limit them to vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drones, the next Chinese carrier, CV-18, will likely have electromagnetic catapults. Those catapults would enable CV-18 and its nuclear-powered successors to launch heavier and faster drones propelled by turbofan engines.

It's likely the drones Shi mentions will be sophisticated, heavier versions of today's systems. The Lijian, for example, uses a flying wing body (just like the B-2 bomber and X-47B drone) and has two bomb bays that could accommodate 2 tons of artillery. A carrier variant would have reinforced landing gears and structures to handle the forces involved in catapult launch and assisted recovery. They may also have larger fuel tanks for extended range.

Shi also added that CASC's primary customer, the People's Liberation Army, was looking at using artificial intelligence to enable "wingmen" drones for manned aircraft.

China V750 UCAV Antitank Missile Helicopter Drone


For quick air strike abilities, missile-armed drone helicopters like this V750 and the Sky Saker 300 could be adapted for use on Chinese warships.


These plans fit nicely within China's other military ambitions. The nation is already testing the first of VTOL unmanned aerial systems (UAS) on its warships. Those VTOL drones are likely unmanned helicopters, used for reconnaissance and possibly anti-submarine missions. Those drones will likely see service in the next few years, before being replaced by those with more sophisticated VTOL propulsion systems, such as tiltrotor engines (the engines tilt 90 degrees for level flight) or tail sitters (the entire aircraft tilts forward perpendicularly for level flight).

Cloud Shadow UAV drone China Zhuhai 2016


The Cloud Shadow, a single-engined version of the Sky Wing UAV, has stealthy features like canted vertical stabilizers and serrated panel edges, though its lacks an internal weapons bay (for now). The CH-X drone, which will be displayed at Zhuhai 2018, will be a completely stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle.


Shi also mentioned that a new stealth drone, the Caihong X "CH-X," will be displayed at the 2018 Zhuhai Airshow in November. The CH-X will likely draw from the work done on the Lijian flying wing stealth drone. Like other members of the CH family displayed at the Zhuhai Airshows, the CH-X will likely be offered for export, possibly making it the world's first stealthy attack drone offered for export. And, as the CH-X is marketed for foreign buyers, it could also likely find domestic naval users as well.