The Pentagon thinks China will prioritise development of stealthy unmanned aircraft for air-to-ground combat along with its pursuit of fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the J-20 and J-31 to rival the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
According to a report by the US Defense Department on military developments in China, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force views stealth technology as “integral to unmanned aircraft”, particularly for striking well-defended ground targets.
“Some estimates indicate China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land- and sea-based unmanned systems, worth about $10.5 billion, between 2014 and 2023,” the report says. “In 2013, China unveiled details of four UAVs under development—the Xianglong, Yilong, Sky Saber, and Lijian—the last three of which are designed to carry precision-strike capable weapons.”
China’s first stealthy UAV, the Lijian, conducted its maiden test flight November 2013.
For manned aviation, China is developing two highly maneuverable and stealthy fifth-generation fighter jets that could enter service by 2018.
The report says the third and fourth J-20 prototypes conducted their first flights in 2014 and flight testing of a fifth prototype is expected by year’s end. The second fighter type, the J-31, debuted at the 10th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai last November.
“The prototype is similar in size to a US F-35 fighter and appears to incorporate design characteristics similar to the J-20,” the report notes. “It is unclear if the J-31 is being developed for employment by the [People’s Liberation Army], or as an export platform to compete with the US F-35 on the arms market.”
Aside from the introduction of advance fighters, China is modernising its bomber force to carry modern, anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles, giving the country’s relatively small and dated H-6 bombers greater punching power.
China is also investing in all-weather, satellite- and laser-guided bombs and missiles and anti-radiation munitions for its fighters, bombers and UAVs. Small, precision-strike armaments being purchased for unmanned platforms include the anti-ship AR-1, anti-tank HJ-10, laser-guided Blue Arrow 7 and KD-2 missiles.
“China is also adapting GPS-guided munitions such as the FT-5 and LS-6 that are similar to the US Joint Direct Attack Munitions to UAVs,” the report states.
China has increased military spending to almost $140 billion annually. In 2014, China had 1,700 fighters, 400 bombers, 475 transports and 115 special-mission aircraft, along with an unknown number of UAVs.
Reporting by James Drew