The photo shows likely engineers at the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (AVIC)  Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute, which is designing the plane— standing in front of the model

For around a decade, rumours have swirled about China’s advanced unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) with the most-metal of names, the Dark Sword. It’s been no secret that the Dark Sword has been in development, but for the most part, that development has been slow going. Artist’s renderings, scale models, and a whole lot of conjecture have really characterised the endeavour to this point, but an image that surfaced on Chinese social media this week seems to indicate that the Dark Sword may finally have found its way into reality.

Or at least, something that looks like it has.

The image appears to show a full sized Dark Sword, though that alone offers little evidence of an operational aircraft. The photo could just as easily be of a full-sized mock up produced for marketing or even wind tunnel purposes. While it could feasibly be an operational prototype (or even one of multiple Dark Sword test beds) it could just as easily be nothing more than a facsimile of what the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation tasked with its development expects the final product to look like. Bearing that in mind, some of the claims made on mainstream news sites regarding this new image may seem a bit … exaggerated.

I won’t name names, but the format may look familiar to you.

While the picture released on Chinese internet may not necessarily suggest anything about the expected production volume (or even if production has started at all) this image, along with previously released renderings of the aircraft do offer some insights into how China hopes to utilize this platform in the future. The shape of the UCAV itself is evidence to suggest that stealth was a priority in development, but unlike other platforms designed specifically with stealth in mind, it appears that the Dark Sword was born of two masters: the aforementioned stealth, as well as the ability to sustain and maneuver at high speeds.

Supporting the idea that the Dark Sword was built not just to be sneaky, but to be quick, is the inclusion of Lockheed Martin style Diverterless Supersonic Inlet (DSI), something China has already put to use on their (F-22 based) J-20, their forthcoming (F-35 based) J-31, and newer variants of their fourth generation fighters. The unique inlet design allows for better engine performance at supersonic speeds, though for a better and far more thorough understanding of the topic, Tyler Rogoway’s piece on Lockheed’s YF-22 over at The Warzone makes for an excellent crash course. This inlet design won’t allow the Dark Sword to “super cruise” at supersonic speeds without the use of afterburners alone, but when coupled with the right engine, it certainly could help.

Currently, even China’s fifth generation J-20 is incapable of “super-cruising” like America’s F-22 and F-35 thanks to their use of legacy engine platforms that aren’t able to sustain those speeds as efficiently.

Very little can be ascertained about the Dark Sword’s weapons capabilities, though its apparent size in the image would indicate that it likely will have comparable internal weapons bays to a fighter platform of similar size. While it’s possible that ordnance could be mounted to external hard points on the aircraft, it’s unlikely that its developers would devote so much time and effort to producing a stealthy and stable supersonic platform just to undo all that work with external weapons load outs (though even Lockheed has pitched such an idea for the F-35).

The image also does little to suggest how the Chinese military hopes to control the Dark Sword, though most experts assume it will serve as a digitally linked wingman for advanced manned aircraft like the J-20 and J-31. That, of course, also assumes that the Dark Sword makes it into the skies any time soon. The technology seems to exist, it’s really just a matter of funding and effort — as indicated by the U.S. Navy’s now defunct UCAV project of their own.

The U.S. was previously developing what would have been a Dark Sword competitor, before doing away with the effort in favor of rapidly fielding a carrier-based drone refueler, however, at least two of the three refuelers currently competing for the contract appear to possess latent weapons capabilities, in part because the programs began as a weaponized platform, but likely also because once the Navy has its refueler requirement filled, it will get back in the hunt for a legitimate UCAV.

The Dark Sword may not be a real threat to the United States as it sits (whether it can fly or not) but it does offer a glimpse of what’s on the horizon — and a reminder that the United States is no longer the only show in town when it comes to advanced military aircraft.