At the recent Airshow China 2022, which was held in Guangdong Province last week, attendees were able to see the FH-97A loyal wingman for the first time. The unmanned aerial vehicle is being developed to accompany a manned aircraft and provide it with intelligence, information, and firepower support.
In an interview with the state-owned Global Times, the platform’s chief designer touted the capabilities of the platform and said it is expected to greatly change conventional air combat.
“Loyal wingman is a key hot topic in the field of UAVs in recent years, and is widely considered to be an important part of the future unmanned combat system,” Deng Shuai, chief designer of the drone, told the Global Times.
The FH-97A loyal wingman is being developed by Feihong Company under the Ninth Academy of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. It is just one drone project currently in the works that could change the pattern of conventional manned air combat by creating a new niche in the air combat system, Deng added.
It was further reported that once operational, the FH-97A could carry out collaborative reconnaissance with special mission aircraft. It could be used to detect potential threats and provide early warning by flying ahead of the manned aircraft, and it could also use its long endurance and range to extend the time and scope of reconnaissance.
Images of the drone have been shared on social media for those unable to attend the show in person.
“FH-97A UCAV model with different munitions: FT-8B, FT-8C, FT-8D, FT-9 or FH-901 loitering munition in Zhuhai Airshow 2022,” tweeted military defense analyst Jesus Roman (@jesusfroman).
China is not alone in developing such autonomous aircraft, which could be used to assemble a dense formation and efficiently coordinate with manned combat aircraft. Such drones could perform air superiority operations, air defense suppression, and air escort missions. These unmanned aircraft could serve as a force multiplier, relieve the impact of pilot shortages, reduce the number of manned aircraft needed in service, and alleviate the considerable stress that military aircraft are put through during each flight.
Deng also suggested that loyal wingmen drones like the FH-97A could carry out air defense suppression by performing electronic reconnaissance, jamming payloads and conducting close-in reconnaissance and interference tasks. These can allow the fighter to penetrate and paralyze the enemy’s air defense systems.
In another notional scenario, while working together with a crewed fighter jet, the FH-97A could carry reconnaissance payloads and fly ahead of a flight formation to make contact with the enemy first. It could then furnish fighters with fire control guidance data, allowing the latter to fire faster than the enemy.
“The FH-97A is not only a sensor, but also an ammunition depot, and also an intelligent assistant for pilots,” Deng explained. “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 of commanders of a flight formation.”
The Capabilities of China’s Loyal Wingman
The Feihong Company was uncharacteristically forthcoming for a Chinese firm, offering a bit more information than Beijing typically allows to be shared in the media. From the reports, it appears that the FH-97A loyal wingman has more advanced capabilities than the FH-97 high-speed stealth multi-purpose UAV system that was presented at last year’s Airshow China.
That particular aircraft was reported to have a combat radius of 1,000 kilometers. It was touted as being able to conduct all-day, all-weather, and all-territory battlefield situational awareness missions for more than six hours, and it was reported to be equipped with intelligent and smart ammunition.
The FH-97A could be seen as a great leap forward for China’s loyal wingman program. It is equipped with two engines, which improves the UAV’s reliability and its ability to complete its tasks. The drone’s weapons bay has been improved as well.
“The electro-optical payload of the FH-97 is under the fuselage, while the electro-optical payload of the FH-97A is above the fuselage. The FH-97 uses an intake on the back, while the FH-97A has side intakes. In addition, there are some differences in the weapons bay, as the new FH-97A’s weapons bay is designed to enhance the maneuverability and speed in air combat while the FH-97’s weapons bay is designed for land attack,” said Deng.
In addition, the weapons bay of the FH-97A can reportedly carry eight smaller, intelligent air-to-air missiles. The drone can further carry pods with different functions, including radar jamming, reconnaissance and communications jamming, as well as fuel tanks, extra missiles and precision-guided weapons.
A Ghost Bat Clone?
If the drone’s design seems familiar, or its capabilities don’t seem all that unique, that might be due to its resemblance to Boeing Australia’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat. As TheDrive reported, it does appear that China is paying close attention to the latest features of the MQ-28 and making sure they have a place on the FH-97A.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time China attempted to copy a Western design. The question now is whether the FH-97A drone is also an improvement.
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.
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