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China unveils ‘loyal wingman’ armed drone concept

The long-range FH-97 drone concept can carry different types of weapons. Source: AFP.

ZHUHAI: China revealed a drone concept similar in mission and appearance to the US-made Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie as countries race to invest in “loyal wingman” drones to help protect pricier crewed fighter jets.

The long-range FH-97 drone concept can carry different types of weapons, and has swarm and electronic warfare capabilities, said Wu Wei, a representative of China Aerospace Science Technology Corp’s (CASTC) Feihong product line. He did not provide specifics in his presentation at Airshow China in Zhuhai.

The United States, Britain, Australia, India and Russia are among the countries developing “loyal wingman” drones, which are cheaper and more expendable than crewed fighters.

CASTC did not provide technical details of the FH-97 concept, nor say whether it was planned for export, though many foreign observers watched the presentation.

The FH-97’s appearance is nearly identical to the Kratos XQ-58A, which made its first flight in 2019. The XQ-58A has a maximum speed of Mach 0.85 and a range of about 2,200 nautical miles.

Zhang Zhongyang, vice president of CASTC said the plan was to turn Feihong into an “international top-notch brand… and become a major player at the centre stage of the world arena.”

China has exported military drones to countries including the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Serbia. “The chief customer is certainly the PLA, but in recent years the Chinese are also aggressively marketing these systems for exports,” said Collin Koh, a defence research fellow with Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

China also used the country’s biggest air show to display the weapons capability of one of its most advanced stealth attack drone projects, the GJ-11. Chinese companies have 27 drone exhibits at the Zhuhai show.

A Chinese daily reported that the GJ-11 on display at the show had its two weapons bays open for the first time. Inside each were four unidentified munitions that appeared to be precision air-to-ground glide bombs.

Airshow China opened on Tuesday after a year of delays caused by COVID-19 pandemic, with a scaled-back foreign presence and a sharp focus on China’s domestic and regional priorities.