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China is working on a new high-speed combat drone to pair with its J-20 stealth fighter


Nov 4, 2011
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China is working on a new high-speed combat drone to pair with its J-20 stealth fighter​

  • Chinese reports say it could become another ‘loyal wingman’ for the Mighty Dragon
  • A prototype of the drone, known as the FH-97A, was unveiled at the Zhuhai air show

Published: 8:30pm, 1 Apr, 2023


A prototype of the combat drone was on display at the Zhuhai air show in Guangdong province in November. Photo: VCG via Getty Images

China is developing a new cutting-edge combat drone to operate alongside – and potentially match the speed of – its most advanced stealth fighter jet, the J-20 Mighty Dragon.

A prototype of the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) – known as the FH-97A – was unveiled at the biennial Zhuhai air show in southern China in November. Chinese military magazines have since reported that it could become another “loyal wingman” for the J-20.

“The pairing of the FH-97A and the J-20 will free up the J-20 from frontline combat tasks so that it can specialise in functions such as command and control, data distribution and interruption of communication,” according to a report in the latest edition of Naval and Merchant Ships magazine.

It said this would improve the survival rate of pilots and manned fighter jets during battle.

State broadcaster CCTV in October revealed how drones were being incorporated into combat operations alongside piloted aircraft, with a computer-generated graphic showing a twin-seat J-20 commanding several stealth attack drones that resembled the GJ-11 UCAV.

It was seen as confirmation of the role of the J-20 back-seat pilot as a “weapons officer” controlling the UCAVs.


A J-20 leads stealth attack drones in a computer-generated graphic shown on state television in October. Photo: CCTV

The new combat drone, the FH-97A, has a similar fuselage design to the J-20, suggesting it could potentially fly as fast as the Mighty Dragon, according to a December report in Ordnance Industry Science Technology, another Chinese military magazine.

Part of a series on the Zhuhai air show, the report said the FH-97A was designed to take on large and medium-sized drones as well as piloted warplanes – including early-warning aircraft, strategic bombers and electronic warfare fighters – in air combat.

The combat drone can carry eight smaller, intelligent air-to-air missiles or loitering munitions, the report said, which could compensate for the J-20’s lack of ammunition. The stealthy Mighty Dragon is limited to carrying four medium- to long-range air-to-air missiles in its main bay and one short-range missile in each lateral weapon bay.

Feihong Company – a subsidiary of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation – is developing the FH-97A drone.

The high-speed combat drone has been described by Western media as a clone of the American Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie, a jet-powered drone designed to fly alongside manned fighter jets such as the F-35 or F-22 and navigate autonomously.

But Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said they were “two different designs with their own merits”.

“The Valkyrie is a subsonic drone, while the FH-97A is a super-speed variant,” he said.

Li Jie, a naval expert in Beijing, noted that China had started developing drone technology in the 1960s. He said the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the war in Ukraine had inspired the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to put more resources into hybrid warfare – integrating manned and unmanned weapon systems.

“Drone warfare could help the PLA to deter US aircraft from conducting close-in reconnaissance along China’s southeastern coast if it can develop more of these ‘loyal wingman’ drones and get them into service,” Li said.


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