Could drone pairing be the future for China’s twin-seater J-20 fighter?

Kristin Huang, South China Morning Post

Posted at Sep 26 2022 01:06 AM

A Chinese J-20 stealth fighter performs at the Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai in southern China's Guangdong province on November 6, 2018. Wang Zhao, Agence France-Presse
A Chinese J-20 stealth fighter performs at the Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai in southern China's Guangdong province on November 6, 2018. Wang Zhao, Agence France-Presse

The new warplane could be used for longer-range missions and a surrounding swarm of UAVs would greatly enhance its firepower

The twin-seat version of the jet, known as the Mighty Dragon, could be used for reconnaissance, surveillance or strike missions, a magazine article suggests

The twin-seat version of China’s most advanced fighter jet, the J-20, could be paired with drones to boost its firepower, a Chinese military magazine has suggested.

“As Yang Wei, the chief designer of the aircraft, has already said the purpose of building such a twin-seat J-20 is not to treat it simply as a trainer, its major role then will almost certainly be to coordinate with drones,” the article in Ordnance Industry Science Technology said.

China’s air force presented a computer-generated picture of the twin-seat version of the J-20, also known as the Mighty Dragon, in a video in January last year, marking 10 years since the aircraft’s first flight. A prototype model of the twin-seat J-20 was unveiled in October.

US efforts to develop a two-seat stealth fighter stalled in the 1990s, when a variant of the F-22 was dropped to save money.

Compared with a single-seat aircraft, which is generally smaller and more agile, a twin-seat aircraft is heavier and can be deployed to conduct multi-role operations over a longer range.

When paired with drones, technically known as manned-unmanned teaming, a twin-seat J-20 can perform coordinated reconnaissance, coordinated strike and coordinated command missions, according to the article.

“As a manned aircraft, the J-20 can act as the commander of the drone swarm,” said the article.

“The drones can be used as ‘eyes and ears’ that expand the scope of the J-20’s situational awareness and enhance manned aircraft’s ability to spy and locate enemy targets.”

Mighty Dragon: China’s upgraded J-20 stealth fighter

Although the fighter can only carry four to six ground-strike munitions, its firepower can be enhanced by the swarm of drones, each of which can carry between four and 10 precision-guided munitions.

The article said a J-20 with a swarm of drones could conduct tasks such as early-warning missions and battlefield surveillance.

“We still need to develop and expand the combat strategies between a manned plane and unmanned drones,” said the article.

Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the Rand Corporation, said: “The use of drones allows a military force to initiate attacks faster and also to keep fighting despite losses … And they can bring a real advantage in modern combat.”

China is not the only country to explore the cooperation between crewed fighters and drones.

Lockheed Martin said in July that it was examining ways to team a mix of expendable drone wingmen and more advanced autonomous systems with US fighters.

Despite their huge potential, drones are not invincible. The can be jammed, spoofed – hijacked by taking over their communication links – or destroyed by lasers or other weapons.