A rendition of the Dark Sword stealth drone developed by Aviation Industry of China (AVIC)

Wingman drones become new trend for fighter jets

With both the US and Russia announcing in the past week new progress in the development of drones that could accompany manned fighter jets in combat, Chinese experts said on Sunday that such wingman-style drones are a trend that China should not fall behind.

US drone-maker Kratos said the US Air Force could be purchasing 20 to 40 XQ-58 Valkyrie stealth drones by the end of 2019, online military magazine Defence Blog reported on Thursday.

The XQ-58 Valkyrie could fly with US manned fighter jets including the F-35 and F-15EX, which could function as flight leads for the drones, the National Interest reported.

Russia, on the other hand, released footage of the first flight of the S-70 Okhotnik stealth assault drone on Wednesday, Sputnik news agency reported, noting that the flying wing drone is designed to be paired with the Su-57 fighter jet for joint missions.

Controlled by manned fighter jets, wingman drones can potentially act as their capability amplifiers by, for example, carrying extra weapons, gathering battlefield information and expanding the fighter pilots' situational awareness, a military expert who asked not to be named told the Global Times on Sunday.

Some military observers previously thought wingman drones could only become a reality for the upcoming sixth-generation fighter jets, but the US and Russian developments have shown that it may have already become a trend now, the expert said.

China has yet to announce any wingman drone development, but many Chinese stealth drones that have been revealed could serve that purpose and accompany the J-20 fighter jet, analysts said.

The state-owned Aviation Industry of China (AVIC) exhibited an unnamed flying wing stealth drone at Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai, South China's Guangdong Province in November 2018. AVIC also developed another stealth drone, the Dark Sword, which is more similar to a fighter jet, according to foreign media.

The Sky Hawk of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, the CH-7 of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and the Sharp Sword of AVIC are also stealth drones.

If a data link and control system can be developed between these drones and manned warplanes, they could become wingmen, the expert said.