PLA pilot says unmanned aerial vehicles can do what humans cannot – endure extremes for long periods. US military tandem test hints at future warfare with mother ships keeping out of enemy range while drones fly into danger for intelligence and combat missions

China has again hinted at a potential pairing of its most advanced aircraft, the J-20, with drones in a tandem strategy that would expand Beijing’s combat capabilities, according to state media.

“The future is a big era for drone development. Important questions are: what role should drones play in future battlefields, how to team up manned and unmanned vehicles, and what tactical goal can be achieved,” Chinese air force pilot Liu Qihong was quoted as saying about the J-20 in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV.

“If teamed with four drones during a mission, the manned vehicle can have a wider surveillance area and clearer sense of danger. What’s more, drones can overcome long endurance periods, high temperature and a lot of noise, which might become unbearable for human pilots.”

The CCTV report was shown as the air force marked its 72nd anniversary on November 11.

The remarks on teaming the J-20 – an advanced fifth-generation fighter with stealth and supersonic cruise capabilities, also known as “Mighty Dragon” – with drones came weeks after the plane was shown at the latest Zhuhai Air Show together with a drone, the GJ-11 “Sharp Sword”, a stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle.

At that time Chinese authorities had not revealed plans to pair advanced fighter jets with drones, a field in which China’s technology leads, for military purposes. However, the positioning of the two aircraft prompted speculation online that the Chinese air force would marry manned and unmanned vehicles for future training exercises.

China is not the only country actively researching and practising manned-unmanned teaming, known as MUM-T.

In late October, the US military for the first time retrieved a drone in flight and placed it on a plane, making the plane a drone carrier in the air. The drone was refurbished and flown again within hours, according to military website

The US military envisions that in a real battle such mother ships would keep out of enemy range while flying swarms of drones into danger for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare missions.

The scenario conceived by the US would be an ideal use of MUM-T in which drones are employed on a dangerous mission to augment or extend the surveillance capability of an aircraft.

Ridzwan Rahmat, principal defence analyst at military publisher Janes, said teaming up manned and unmanned aircraft was increasingly popular and China was not ahead of the pack.

“In this part of the world, the US, Australia, Singapore and South Korea are leading the way with MUM-T operations. China is trying to play catch up, but it is unclear how much progress they have made in this domain,” Rahmat said.

Timothy Heath, a senior security expert from US think tank Rand, echoed Rahmat. “The US remains the lead developer of such technologies, with the Skyborg concept,” Heath said.

Announced in late 2020, Skyborg is a US program to develop drones to accompany US Air Force aircraft in contested environments. The Skyborg prototype had its first test flight test in May.

“The development of fully operationalised manned-unmanned teams will likely take 5-10 years,” Heath said. “The US military has candidate UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and manned aircraft who are well poised for such operations, such as the F-35, but there will need to be improvements in the AI capability of the UAVs, avionics and operational procedures for teaming.”

Heath said China would most likely need even more time for development because it did not have manned aircraft with data and sensor abilities similar to the F-35.

“These capabilities will need to be developed in PLA advanced aircraft, such as J-20, before the PLA can fully realise the potential of manned-unmanned teaming,” he said.