A CGI rendition of Boeing's Loyal Wingman concept

Hong Kong: A number of countries with modern and powerful militaries are pursuing a new category of aircraft, and China is one of them. This new category is often referred to as a "loyal wingman", and it takes the capabilities of unmanned aircraft even further.

Loyal wingmen - alternatively known as adjunct aircraft, remote carrier or pilot's friend - are the ultimate form of drone. Indeed, regular drones have shown themselves to be surprisingly effective in recent conflicts such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine.

No country has yet fielded an operational loyal wingman aircraft, but many are vigorously pursuing the idea. Perhaps receiving the most publicity at the moment is a collaborative project between Boeing and the Royal Australian Air Force, with its 11.7m-long fighter-like UAV being christened the MQ-28A Ghost Bat earlier this year. China will be no different with its secretive, classified programs.

ANI asked Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in the United Kingdom, to define what a loyal wingman actually is. He described them as a "class of uninhabited system that is, from the outset, designed to operate in concert with a crewed platform". Barrie expects such aircraft "to operate in multiples, maybe twos or threes".

A loyal wingman is generally a lower-cost platform than a manned fighter jet, and this means it can go into riskier or more dangerous situations, and can also help preserve the lives of pilots and aviators by allowing manned aircraft to stay farther away from high-threat zones.

Barrie said loyal wingmen can perform a panoply of missions such as reconnaissance, act as decoys, jam enemy radars/communications/sensors and suppress enemy air defences.

They can deliver weapons too, though controlling them for air-to-air or air-to-ground roles with weapons release comes with many challenges. China is very secretive, but Barrie said, "Considering the breadth of general defence aerospace research and development, I would be surprised if they were not doing this, because they seem to be doing absolutely everything else!"

If there were a contest between China and Russia to field a loyal wingman first, the IISS academic expects it to definitely be China. "I'm sure there's ambition, but I think the issue with the Russians to some extent is they have to play catch-up in the whole inhabited environment." Investment in unmanned technology plunged cataclysmically after the Soviet Union's demise, and it has never been able to catch up.

On the other hand, no country on earth seems to harbour the ambition that China does in terms of fielding a wide range of drones, which are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). This is evident at events such as Zhuhai Air Show that is held in the southern Chinese port city every two years.

The last event occurred in 2021, and there was a strong loyal wingman contender on display there. Although not labelled as such, the UAV bore all the hallmarks of an adjunct aircraft. Called the FH-97 ("FH" stands for Feihong), a full-scale mock-up was displayed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). The FH-97 is a medium-and long-range UAV with stealthy design. Some describe it as a copy of the American XQ-58A Valkyrie from Kratos Defence, which is a contender competing for contracts from the US Air Force (USAF).

The FH-97 mock-up at Air Show China 2021 had a stealthy trapezoidal fuselage, sharply swept main wings, a V-shaped tail and a dorsal air intake. It had an internal weapons bay and an electro-optical sensor under the nose. The FH-97 is powered by two jet engines.

No dimensions were published, but the FH-97 does appear roughly similar in size to the XQ-58A Valkyrie. Whether the FH-97 is aimed at the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) or export markets is unclear, and nor is the status of its development known. However, its appearance at an international aerospace exhibition is a clue that Chinese researchers and planners are definitely considering and pursuing such assets.

Two years earlier, a Chinese company showed another high-speed loyal wingman-type aircraft at the MAKS air show near Moscow. It was called the LJ-1, and the jet-powered design was a product from Xi'an-based North-Western Polytechnical University. Nothing has been heard of it since, but again it is an indication that China is researching this class of aircraft.

It is possible that the public exhibition of these particular aircraft actually discounts them as being the PLAAF's future platforms. This is due to China's overbearing sense of paranoia when it comes to development of military weapons. It is highly likely that separate classified programs are ongoing that the rest of the world knows nothing about, and that china does not wish to divulge at an international arms fair.

However, yet another clue that something is afoot came when China tested its first twin-seat J-20 manned fighter last year. A prototype performed a high-speed taxi test at the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation's facility in October 2021.

Surreptitiously taken photos and video of the milestone proved that a twin-seat version of the J-20A fighter is a reality. In fact, this confirmation makes it the world's first twin-seat stealth fighter. Rumours of such a variant had been swirling for months, encouraged by an official 2021 AVIC promotional video celebrating the tenth anniversary of the J-20's maiden flight, which showed four computer-generated twin-seat J-20s flying in formation.

Destined for the PLAAF, the exact function of the twin-seat J-20 remains somewhat speculative, however. Some have suggested the twin-seater could be used as a trainer, but Yang Wei, the J-20's chief designer, said earlier last year, "Assuming we do have a twin-seat version of the J-20, it would not be a trainer aircraft because it would be developed for the enhancement of the aircraft." Indeed, Barrie added that such a role would make it the world's most expensive trainer jet in existence, and therefore that theory does not make any sense.

Instead, specialized combat roles are therefore most likely for the twin-seat version thanks to the addition of a second crewman who can better handle the screeds of networked data that modern fighters can generate and receive. The platform could therefore be used for air-to-ground, electronic warfare or command-and-control missions, for example.

However, just as likely is using it as a control aircraft for loyal wingmen UAVs. Chinese industry is seeking to leverage manned-unmanned teaming and artificial intelligence, so this loyal wingman control function could well be one intended role for this new variant of the J-20.

There has been an international trend towards single-seat fighters, partly due to it cutting down on training costs. Barrie pointed out, however, that if loyal wingmen are to proliferate, weapon systems officers will be necessary in the back of fighters to give oversight of multiple loyal wingmen. This will then create a trend back towards a mix of single- and twin-seaters.

China seems to be leading that trend with its twin-seat J-20. Quantity sometimes has a quality all of its own, and this is where loyal wingmen excel.

Barrie told ANI: "It's that ability to generate combat mass, at an affordable price potentially, and in a way that you can accept a loss and attrition rate that you never could with a crewed combat aircraft."

Adjunct aircraft offer the ability to put more aircraft with varying levels of sophistication in the sky, giving opponents more targets to deal with. Especially as crewed combat aircraft get costlier, and with pilot training being painfully expensive, air forces sense that loyal wingman could be one solution to generate combat mass. This is possibly more so for Western air forces that are facing budget squeezes; certainly the PLA does not seem to be short of money, as China's defence budget grows rapidly each year.

There is one other area where the PLA could be looking at loyal wingmen too, and that is relating to strategic bombers. China is developing the stealthy H-20 bomber, but there are no indications yet what it might look like or when it might be ready to fly or enter service.

If one looks at what the USA is doing with its new stealth bomber development, the B-21, then we can assume that China will be thinking along similar lines. US Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said in December 2021 that the USAF is developing a loyal wingman - a "bomber buddy" if you like - for the B-21.

He shared, "The B-21 is a very expensive aircraft. It has a certain payload and range. We'd like to amplify that capability it has to penetrate, which is valuable. What we want is something that can go operate with it. I won't say accompany it - the tactics are very much to be determined. But we're going to sort that out and think about unmanned combat aircraft and how to network them together under the control of an operator of the B-21, to operate as a formation in some loose sense."

Kendall added: "We're not going to say a lot more about what we're going to do in public. We don't want to give our potential enemies a head start on any of this."

Barrie said that for all players there are important technological and ethical challenges to surmount: '...There's a mix of software reliability, software predictability, public acceptance, legal issues. There's a whole range of things that swirl around." The public acceptance issue spills back into the killer robot debate, raising moral and ethical questions about artificial intelligence and autonomy, for example.

Certainly, China will not face some of the regulatory and ethical barriers that Western countries do when it comes to fielding such unmanned aircraft with the ability to kill. Barrie expects that the world should "expect to see this kind of stuff beginning to be operated by the end of this decade". However, the introduction of loyal wingmen will be "incremental". It will start with the lowest-hanging fruit, such as fighters dispensing smaller UAVs in mid-flight, and it will take longer for the really top-end stuff to appear.

Just how far along that development continuum China is, it is hard to tell. But one thing is clear, China is good at surprising others with the pace and seriousness with which it is investing in its military, and loyal wingmen will undoubtedly be yet another example of that.