Chinese aircraft carrier seen with a fleet of drones on its deck

Images have emerged online that appear to show several examples of at least two different types of commercial drones or commercial derivatives with vertical take-off and landing capability on the deck of the Chinese aircraft carrier. shandong. The exact circumstances behind these images are not immediately clear. They point to the ever-increasing efforts of the People’s Liberation Army of China to develop and field various types of unmanned aircraft, including those that can operate together in networked swarms, and often for the purpose of playing various maritime roles.

The images were recently posted on Chinese microblogging website Weibo, but it is unclear when they were taken. At least one, which actually shows a drone in flight, has a CCTV-7 watermark, indicating that it is an image from a segment aired on that television network. The Seventh Channel of China Central Television (CCTV) is devoted to programming related to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

In April, the Chinese authorities announced that shandong, which entered service in 2019, had entered its first major scheduled maintenance period at the Dalian shipyard. Satellite imagery showed the ship was still in Dalian at least as of May 26. The carrier, the first to be built in China, had been seen transiting north through the Taiwan Strait in March, timed to coincide with a phone call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden, but without any aircraft, manned or unmanned, easily visible on its deck and otherwise appearing to be heading for the shipyard.

Either way, the images of the transporter loaded with these drones are significant. At least two distinct types are visible, but all appear to be what are often described as “hybrid” vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capable designs. Unmanned aircraft of this general type have relatively conventional fixed-wing configurations and operate as such in level flight, but they also have underwing booms with rotors at either end to allow VTOL operation.

In the photo showing the various drones arranged on the deck of the Shandong, three of them appear to have forward-mounted propellers and what may be flat T- or H-tails. The other four appear to have thruster propellers and double arrow tails with inverted V connection sections. The drone in the image marked CCTV-7 also has this type of double boom tail arrangement.

A Chinese design that might fit the general description of forward-mounted propeller types is JOUAV’s CW-20, which features a gasoline-powered main motor and electric rotors for VTOL operation. The CW-20, with its nearly 6-foot (1.8-meter) overall length and nearly 10.5-foot (3.2-meter) wingspan, has a maximum takeoff weight of just over 55 pounds (25 kilograms). It has a battery life of 6 hours, according to the manufacturer, and can operate just under 28 miles (35 kilometers) from the operator using a line-of-sight radio link. The company says the standard payload is a digital camera, but its website says the payload bay is modular and could accommodate other systems.

JOUAV also produces various models of twin-boomers which could be seen among others on the deck of shandong. However, the photo of the drone in flight appears to show a Xiang Yi CSC-005, which features an under-nose sensor turret with electro-optical and infrared cameras, as well as a laser rangefinder. Information readily available on the CSC-005 in English is limited, but it is said to have a maximum takeoff weight of just over 46 pounds (21 kilograms) and uses a line-of-sight control link with a maximum range of approximately 31 miles (50 kilometers), both of which are broadly similar to the capabilities offered by the CW-20.

The low resolution of the drone footage of the Shandong Bridge and the lack of other readily available information make it difficult to conclusively identify the specific drones we can see in the footage. There are several other manufacturers in China that make similar types of drones with sizes and capabilities roughly equivalent to the CW-20 and CSC-005.

This is not the first time that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been observed flying commercial or derivative hybrid VTOL drones from its ships. In 2019, Chinese state media reported on a test involving the use of a derivative of the Sea Cavalry SD-40, produced by a company called Xiamen Hanfeiying Aviation Technologies and Xiamen Han’s Eagle Aviation Technology, from a Type 052C destroyer. The SD-40 features a pusher propeller and twin-boom tail, but does not appear to be similar to any of the models seen in photos of the drones on shandong.

A photo showing a Sea Cavalry SD-40 drone flying above the deck of a PLAN Type 052C destroyer during a test in 2019. Chinese army online

The SD-40 was specially developed for shipboard operations and can take off and land on ships sailing in moderate wave conditions. The unmanned aircraft is just over 6.5 feet (2 meters) long and has a wingspan of approximately 12 feet (3.7 meters), and features a modular payload bay that could accommodate various cameras, a small radar with synthetic aperture imaging capability, or a communication relay package.

The drones we see here do not represent high-end unmanned capability. It’s possible they were aboard the carrier as part of training or trials related to defending against the growing threats posed by small drones.

However, the 2019 test of the SD-40 shows that PLAN is interested in deploying hybrid VTOL drones on ships to support non-training activities as well. There are obvious potential operational benefits that these types of unmanned platforms could provide to an aircraft carrier such as shandong. This could include watching around the ship against various types of threats or just additional general situational awareness. Depending on their exact range of capabilities, they might be able to provide some degree of additional localized surveillance and reconnaissance capability for the carrier and any associated strike group. Working together, especially as part of a fully networked swarm, the drone could scan large areas around the ship relatively quickly.

The Chinese aircraft carrier shandong. Tyg728 via Wikimedia

Even relatively small VTOL-enabled drones could be used to transport limited amounts of cargo, including items such as critical spare parts or medical supplies, to and from the carrier. The US Navy experimented with using hybrid VTOL drones in exactly this role last year.

Beyond that, embark the drones on shandong would seem more likely than not to be a stepping stone to wider integration of unmanned platforms, including much more capable types, such as those that might be able to operate as fully autonomous networked swarms, in the air wings of PLAN carriers, in general. It is no secret that the PLA as a whole, as well as the Chinese aviation industry as a whole, have made significant progress in recent years in the development of an extremely wide range of different unmanned aircraft. and ever more advanced, ranging from small spin-off designs to stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). The Chinese military has in fact fielded an equally large number of these designs, including several types now in operational use in the maritime domain.

Last year, the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) showed a computer-generated video during the latest iteration of the country’s Zhuhai airshow that depicted navalized versions of the stealth GJ-11 Sharp Sword UCAV. taking off from a Type 075 amphibious assault ship and swarming with enemy surface warships. The drones appeared to be using either electronic warfare suites or directed energy weapons in the video presentation, a clip of which later appeared in the CCTV-7 segment seen in the Tweet below.

The PLA’s interest in drone swarms, as well as the means to defend against them, including in a naval context, no longer needs to be demonstrated. Last year, the Chinese launched some sort of unusual drone carrier, apparently for training purposes, but it could also be a step towards the operational deployment of aerial drone swarms from various ships.

A catamaran-hull ship model officially intended to be used as a drone swarm mothership in training exercises on display at the 2021 Zhuhai Airshow. This ship was launched last year. chinese internet

Chinese state-run civilian science and engineering firms, which often have clear ties to the PLA, have also conducted their own work on unmanned platforms and swarm technology for use in environments. maritime. Just this month, the Huangpu Wenchong Shipping Company launched a ship capable of at least semi-autonomous operation itself, which will be used as a hub for flying drones, as well as surface ships. unmanned and unmanned underwater vehicles. You can find out more about the Zhu Hai Yunwhich will officially be used for ocean research purposes, but which also has an obvious military utility here.

shandong and the PLAN’s other full-size aircraft carriers, a fleet expected to grow in the coming years, would be incredible platforms for launching and recovering massive swarms of low-end drones at sea. Experimenting with such a concept now, even with surrogate aircraft, would make sense.

Drone swarms of all kinds are only increasingly likely to be a component of future conflicts China may find itself embroiled in, whether operated by Chinese forces or other parties. Multiple wargames conducted by or for the US Air Force in recent years have shown that swarms of relatively small unmanned aircraft operating simply as distributed sensor networks have provided decisive advantages to America and its allies and partners. in scenarios revolving around the defense of Taiwan against a Chinese invasion.

Separately, the US Navy has said on more than one occasion now that it sees its own carrier wings having an increasing proportion of unmanned aircraft over time. Drones could in fact become the dominant type of aircraft flying from American flattops within the next few decades.

All in all, regardless of the particular circumstances that led to the embarkation of this deployment of drones on the Chinese aircraft carrier shandong could have been, it only underscores the importance of unmanned platforms in future conflicts, including in the naval realm, and the PLA’s interest in being a major force when it comes to war. is to deploy these capacities.

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