China may be mirroring the U.S. Air Force’s Loyal Wingman program. The Air Force program is intended to enable manned jets to operate with semi-autonomous drones.
A report in the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper says the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is experimenting with manned-unmanned teaming with its J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter jet.
The Air Force’s Airpower Teaming System and the Loyal Wingman aircraft enables manned fighters to be linked to unmanned drones. Incoming information from the unmanned systems, such as video, still photos, or electronic warfare information, can be collected and organized by on-board computer processing, greatly improving operational efficiency and multiplying mission options.
The U.S. Air Force has had the project in development for several years now. It has even flown F-35 Lightnings alongside its Valkyrie drone to refine manned-unmanned teaming concepts and possibilities. The Air Force has also considered the possibility of allowing F-22 or F-35 pilots to control drones from the cockpit. Weapons developers saw an opportunity to reduce risk to manned aircraft by enabling them to control drones to test enemy air defenses, blanket an area with surveillance, and even fire weapons when directed by a human.
It would certainly not be a surprise if China was seeking to replicate a similar capability. The Global Times suggested that the loyal wingman concept could prove useful in its new twin-seat J-20 as a second crew member could operate the drones while a pilot flew the aircraft.
“Combat data from the second seat could be gathered, analyzed and used to train artificial intelligence, which could eventually replace the second pilot,” the Global Times report says.
It is not clear how advanced the PLA Air Force might be with this kind of technology, but it would be a force multiplier and major advantage for an attacking force. This is particularly true as more computer automation and artificial intelligence programs evolve to speed up the pace of data analysis and transmission. Future aircraft will be able to perform a much greater range of functions autonomously, such as gathering and processing data, without needing human intervention.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.