China Unveils New Drone Stealth Fighters: Are They 'Wingmen' to Support J-20 Operations?

Two new unmanned flying wing stealth aircraft with uncertain roles and designations were unveiled at Zhuhai International Airport in October 31 and November 1, ahead of China’s major public military aviation event the Zhuhai Airshow in the country’s southeast. A number of reports have indicated that the aircraft are long awaited ‘wingmen’ for the J-20 fighter, which is one of just two fifth generation combat jets worldwide  to be in production and fielded at squadron level strength. Use of wingman drones is expected to be a key feature of sixth aerial warfare, with the J-20 having a twin seat variant developed and first flown in 2021 specifically to command such aircraft. Wingman drones will allow each pilot to command more sensors and missiles in the air by supplementing the carriage of each fighter with those of four to six accompanying aircraft. The viability of such drones for combat operations is expected to continue to increase rapidly as advances are made in artificial intelligence, providing the levels of autonomy needed to synergise with manned fighters and with one another. 

Features on the new aircraft such as flight data probes, ‘remove before flight’ safety tags, and robust looking landing gear indicate that they are prototypes rather than models. Their appearance comes as China has increasingly cemented its place as a leader in unmanned military aviation, with some of its outstanding products including the unique WZ-8 hypersonic surveillance drone, GJ-11 unmanned strike aircraft and Qimingxing-50 solar powered communications relay aircraft, as well as a wider range of lower end designs. 

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