Just like Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat, China’s new FH-97A unmanned stealth jet is designed to fly with manned stealth jets and help them to strike and survive in hotly contested airspace.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s true, the Chinese military has been flattering the heck out of the U.S. over the last few years.
But before China started its unwelcome flattering of U.S. weapons, it threw a lot of flattery toward Russia. For instance, when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Russia needed money quickly and started selling off its very impressive Su-27 fighter. Beijing bought 24 of these jets and later negotiated to get a license to assemble more planes in China, using components imported from Russia. A few years later, China said the Su-27 did not meet its needs and canceled the contract. But a short time later, China started mass producing its new J-11B fighter, which looks like an exact copy of the Su-27.
China would also buy single examples of other Russian weapons, saying it was for “testing purposes.” Often, the Russians would then not hear from China regarding these systems again, only to later see very similar weapon systems being mass-produced by China.
Another Russian system that China made a copy of is the carrier-capable Su-33 fighter jet. The Chinese mass-produced these as the J-15 Flying Shark. China says the J-15 is the first locally made carrier-borne fighter — and it does not have a license from Russia to produce it — but it looks exactly like the Su-33.
Other Russian military systems that China mass-produced in its own factories include the Yakovlev Yak-130 training jet that China produces as the Hongdu L-15 Falcon. Then there’s China’s large Shaanxi Y-9 transport plane that looks very much like Russia’s Antonov An-12 Cub. Russia’s classic BMP infantry fighting vehicle also ended up as a Chinese copy, as did Russia’s BM-30 Smerch “Whirlwind” multiple rocket launcher and its 2S19 Msta-S self-propelled howitzer, to name but a few.
The American systems that ended up being cloned in Chinese military factories include the classic Humvee light truck, the MQ-9 Reaper drone, the M4A1 assault rifle, the FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile, and the Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter.
A lot of eyebrows were raised when a clear imitation of the U.S.’ cutting-edge stealth combat drone appeared on Chinese runways. The Northrop Grumman X-47B combat drone test-bed is now being retired, but it was seen as one of the greatest leaps in drone technology when it was being tested on U.S. aircraft carriers. The X-47B became the first drone to be launched from a carrier with a CATOBAR catapult system, and the first to land on a carrier with a tailhook, and it even proved that it could take on fuel from an aerial tanker in mid-flight. In 2013, a few years after the U.S. revealed the X-47B, China revealed its Lijian Sharp Sword unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), which is about the same size and shape as the stealthy X-47B.
Other examples of China’s unwanted flattery are China’s J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters, which both have similar exterior designs to the U.S.’ F-35 fighter. Even the U.S.’ venerated Blackhawk helicopter was turned into the very similar-looking Harbin Z-20 helicopter in 2013, which some have nicknamed the “Copyhawk.”
China’s newest example of “copycat-ism” was revealed to the world during the 2022 Zhuhai Airshow that ended on November 13. At the show, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation showed two models of its stealthy new “loyal wingman” drone, the FH-97A. A display next to the two models showed an animation video of four of the stealthy jet drones flying in formation ahead of one Chinese J-20 stealth fighter. The video showed the five aerial vehicles communicating via a wireless data link and working together to engage a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. We see the F-22 pursuing the J-20 in a tight turn to get a missile lock, when one of the wingman drones appears from the side and fires a missile that destroys the F-22.
The two models of the FH-97A shown at the air show looked almost identical to Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System “loyal wingman” drone, named the MQ-28 Ghost Bat. Boeing’s Australian subsidiary developed the drone and the vehicle is being tested by both the Australian and U.S. military. The Ghost Bat’s role would be pretty much exactly what China’s information video says its new drone would do.
The big difference is that the Ghost Bat is already flying as a maturing system, whereas the two display models of the Chinese FH-97A did not move, so they seem to be empty mock-ups. The Chinese propaganda outlet, Global Times named a Mr. Deng Shuai as the chief designer of the drone. Deng told the outlet that the FH-97A would not only be a sensor, but also an ammunition depot as well as an intelligent assistant for pilots. “It can extend a pilot’s situational awareness and scope of attack, and by using FH-97As in large numbers, each loyal wingman drone can become an intelligent node in the air combat system, obtain local combat information, and filter and integrate to form a wider battlefield situation, assist pilots to make decisions, and liberate people from dangerous and highly tense combat environments, so that in addition to being traditional pilots, the pilots can become more like commanders of a flight formation,” said Deng.
Of course, these are just words and it remains to be seen if the FH-97A will actually be built. It is possible that the FH-97A is just another example of Chinese “vaporware” — mock-ups of fantastical advanced weapon systems showed off at military shows, only to disappear from the face of the Earth and never be mentioned again. After all, the FH-97A is supposed to be a more developed version of the FH-97 that was displayed as a mock-up at the same show last year. But the FH-97 looked a lot like another U.S. stealth drone, the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie, whereas the new FH-97A concept looks a lot like the Ghost Bat, which is supposed to be more sophisticated than the Valkyrie.
And even if the FH-97A does evolve past the concept stage, it remains to be seen if China will be able to catch up with the U.S. in terms of the artificial intelligence that has already been built into the Ghost Bat and Valkyrie systems. The former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force, Dr. Gregory Zacharias, told reporters more than eight years ago that his team was developing the datalinks and algorithms that would be required for the pilot of a manned fighter to control wingman drones. His team’s success in this endeavor has now become apparent, as the U.S. Air Force recently started flying the Valkyrie drone in coordination with an F-35 manned fighter. This breakthrough ability is currently being strengthened with more advanced and more “hardened” datalinks and increased computer processing.
As China’s FH-97A is currently just a mock-up surrounded by lofty words, one could be excused for thinking that it is simply a more up-to-date piece of vaporware than its predecessor, which itself does seem to have disappeared off the face of the Earth. On the other hand, one can not discount the fact that China has made impressive strides in its ability to deliver functional versions of advanced weapons over the last few years.
Is the FH-97A simply a boogeyman to distract Western military planners, to force them to develop counter-systems for an advanced drone that might never be built? Or is it a real project with a real development team with a real budget? We should probably learn the answers to these questions in the next few months.
The U.S. definitely has a big lead over China when it comes to the hardware and software that goes into an effective “loyal wingman” drone. However, given the fact that China has a track record for using hackers and spies to steal U.S. technological secrets, Washington should throw an immense amount of mental energy into making sure the U.S.’ hard-won edge in this field is not evaporated because of a lack of data security.