China developing its own teaming UCAS
The Boeing Airpower Teaming System (ATS) Loyal Wingman project appears close to another milestone. As we reported in ADBR last issue, engine and taxi tests have already been conducted as part of the ADF’s
DEF6014 Phase 1 project, and the first flight was due to occur as we go to press.
Meanwhile, multiple similar Loyal Wingman projects continue through various stages of development. These programs include the USAF’s Skyborg program, the Boeing Defence UK and Callen-Lenz Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Air (LANCA), the Franco-German Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program, and a potential South African Air Force (SAAF) wingman UAV to align with the SAAF JAS-39C/D mid-life upgrade.
But of interest to the Indo-Pacific region is the progress of the Chinese LJ-1 ‘Stealth Target Drone’, and what developments it may lead to.
The LJ-1 was revealed last year at the Moscow International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS) and is reportedly a project developed by the Chinese Northwestern Polytechnic University (NWPU) and boutique Chinese aviation manufacturer CCKW (Xi’an Kewei).
Ashtree Analytics researcher Peter Wood says that NWPU is an important component of the PRC aviation industry, with graduates present on the boards and engineering teams of a large number of companies. Writing in the US DoD publication OE Watch in October 2019, Wood stated that CCKW is a Xi’an-based group founded in 2003 that works closely with NWPU on unmanned systems.
“It appears to resemble another NWPU-affiliated company, Aisheng Technology Group, that may have spun off from previous NWPU projects,” he said. This pedigree means the LJ-1 should be taken seriously as a potential UCAS or autonomous system project.
But it is unclear if the LJ-1 has progressed past the concept phase for the PLA. The model shown at MAKS last year appeared to show a somewhat smaller aircraft designed along similar principles to the ATS airframe, but differing in execution. The concept demonstrator claimed a design requirement of a multi-mission, modular payload, including passive and active RF emitters, the ability to work alongside stealth aircraft such as the PLAAF J-20 in a teaming role, and the requirement to conduct training sorties with the PLA to simulate “stealth warplanes like the F-35”, according to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated Global Times.
Quoting an anonymous ‘military expert’, the Global Times claimed that, “by having the stealth target drone, China could practice techniques and tactics, and develop new weapons based on training results”, adding that, “China will be prepared for a potential clash with hostile stealth fighters.”
The stated design goals for the LJ-1 are broad, covering air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons employment, advanced training, and electronic warfare.
The LJ-1 is probably still in the concept exploration stage. The model displayed at MAKS appeared to be based on the CASC CH-5 MALE UAV with smaller V-tails and a flatter nose section, potentially to reduce radar cross-section (RCS). While the flat nose section suggests a limited payload capacity, it may help to realise the claimed frontal RCS design goals
of less than 0.02m2.
The 2019 MAKS model also appears to be a performance compromise. Stated performance goals are the ability for 9G instantaneous turns and 6G sustained turns for 30 seconds. The corner speed for this performance wasn’t stated, but performance similar to a modern fighter aircraft is unlikely to be attained if the LJ-1 uses what appears to be the CH-5 air vehicle’s petrol or heavy fuel engine.
Likewise it is unclear how the stated RCS design goals will be achieved with the existing airframe. While a small air vehicle may replicate the signature of Western 4th generation aircraft such as the F/A-18A Hornet, it is unlikely to represent the stealth characteristics of an F-35 or upgraded 4.5 generation airframe without additional radar absorbent material (RAM) treatments, significant work on the engine intake and, alignment
of lifting and control surfaces to smooth out the RCS plot.
The LJ-1 appears to match its public designator of a ‘Stealth Target Drone’, and it is likely the PRC is using technology refined in the relatively low-cost LJ-1 in follow-on UAV programs. To this end, there is already speculation the LJ-1 may simply be the test bed for the nascent LJ-2 air vehicle which is designed to carry air-to-air or air-to-surface weapons.
Ashtree’s Peter Wood observes that, “with the advent of stealth and much longer engagement ranges for surface-to-air missiles or air-to-air missiles, the requirements for useful target drones have increased significantly.”
The PRC Loyal Wingman may simply be the first of a much more advanced series of stealthy air vehicles, part of a PLA cooperative airpower teaming network.
This article appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of ADBR.