The Chinese navy plans to embark jet-powered drones about future aircraft carriers, an unnamed military source reportedly told the government-run media outlet Global Times.
But that could take a while.
On Jan. 5, 2019, China Central Television aired a video depicting a Tian Ying drone taking off and landing. The broadcast represented the jet-propelled drone's first public appearance.
It's unclear when and where the flight took place.
Global Times described the Tian Ying -- "Sky Hawk" in Chinese -- as a "high-altitude, long-range and high-speed unmanned aerial vehicle capable of conducting reconnaissance and patrol missions in hostile environments."
The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation independently developed the Tian Ying, hoping to sell it to the Chinese armed forces.
"The Sky Hawk will also operate on China's future aircraft carriers that will use electromagnetic catapults," Global Times paraphrased an unnamed military expert as saying.
Experts long had speculated that the drone might have a carrier role. In February, People's Daily Online, another government media outlet, announced the Tian Ying's first flight. Nine months later in November 2018, the drone appeared in a non-flying display at China's Zhuhai air show.
The Tian Ying's heavy-duty landing gear and twin nosewheels were plainly visible. Both features are typical of aircraft that conduct high-impact landings aboard aircraft carriers.
Tian Ying is actually a family of drones, some of them having very little in common with the others. The Tian Ying that CASIC prominently displayed at Zhuhai is flying wing that reportedly is similar in scale to the U.S. Navy's own X-47B jet-powered drone demonstration.
The Navy and builder Northrop Grumman flew a pair of X-47Bs in a multi-billion-dollar series of carrier trials between 2011 and 2017. In the summer of 2013, the X-47B completed the first carrier-landings and catapult-launches aboard the USS George H.W. Bush sailing off the U.S. East Coast.
The data the U.S. Navy gathered informed its MQ-25 program, which aims to build jet-powered aerial-refueling and surveillance drones for carrier air wings beginning in the early 2020s.
In August 2018, Boeing won the contract to build as many as 72 MQ-25s for a total cost of up to $13 billion. Notably, Boeing's MQ-25 is a conventional wing-and-tail aircraft that apparently borrows design elements from Northrop's Tacit Blue stealth demonstrator from the 1980s.
While the Americans move to put tanker drones on carriers in the 2020s, the Chinese could embark their own drones for surveillance or attack missions. The Chinese navy doesn't have much experience with aerial refueling.
But Chinese carrier drones must wait for suitable carriers.
The two flattops in service with the Chinese navy as of early 2019 are incompatible with jet-powered drones, which require a catapult for launch. Liaoning, a refurbished Ukrainian vessel and China’s first carrier, launches its aircraft by way of a ramp rather than a catapult.
Shandong, China’s second carrier, also only has a ramp.
The Chinese navy’s third carrier, a Type 002 vessel currently under construction in Shanghai, might have a catapult and could, in theory, embark drones. It usually takes several years to build a carrier, meaning the Type 002 flattop could enter service in the early 2020s.
A mock-up of the conceptual, apparently nuclear-powered Type 003 carrier at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing also includes catapults and features a Tian Ying-style drone in the launch position.
U.S. Navy carriers feature steam-powered catapults. The U.S. and Chinese navies both are developing electromagnetic catapults that swap out unreliable steam power for magnetic force.
The Chinese military would need to undertake at-sea trials before it could safely integrate drones into its carrier air wings. As American experience proved, these trials are expensive and time-consuming.
It took the U.S. Navy six years to test out carrier-based drone operations. If the Chinese navy cut a contract for Tian Yings in January 2019 and began testing as soon as the catapult-equipped Type 002 carrier launched, it might still be the late 2020s when the Chinese fleet reliably can embark drones on a flattop.
David Axe edits War Is Boring . He is the author of the new graphic novels MACHETE SQUAD and THE STAN.