Chinese UAV & UCAV development


tphuang

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In light of the Mugin-5 attack yesterday, I was just trying to think about the possibility of how large number of low cost loitering drones would work for PLA.

I see several possible applications.
Fixed wing suicidal drones - For possible mass drone attacks against targets in Taiwan or first island chain. For this role, the requirement would be something that can cruise at 120 to 150 km/h for 700 km and carry up to 50 kg of payload. It needs to be able to take off from land and fixed decks. It would need to have some computing power to process data and determine how long to loiter and how to find target. It would have Beidou navigation and military grade sensors/communication systems. It could use a more fuel efficient engine and be a little larger. So, something like 150 kg takeoff weight, with 40 kg payload and a large enough fuel tank to support loitering 700 km. Something like this will probably end up being more like 50k than 20k in the case of Mugin-5. But even 20k of this type of drones would only cost $1 billion (provided they can keep the unit cost down). It would be something that can fly over, identify the target to attack with a HALE reconnaissance drone and attack the fuel tank or radar or communication or go after the repair shed or anything else that could keep an island defense down. It could either do suicidal attack on an aircraft looking to get repaired or waiting to take off. It would be able to target an island operation in a much more surgical way than dropping PGMs. If an islands defense gets its air defense significantly degraded by an initial ballistic missile attack, this could be something that keeps these bases down through follow on attacks.

VTOL drones - This would be something that's extremely useful off large surface combatant in the role of SAR or ASW. There are some interesting concepts of this. There are the traditional UAV helicopters that we've seen off Chinese surface combatants since the early 2010s. There is the VTOL fixed wing UAV we saw off CV-17 a few pages back. There is the SD-40 VTOL drone with 6 hours endurance
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. The commercial market has a lot of quadcopter drones from DJI, but I'm not sure you can actually make it large/powerful enough to operate with long endurance in sea. there is also this Hydrogen power VTOL that set record with 800 km operating range
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. You can see in this example, a electric converted to hydrogen powered quadcopter went from having 1 hour to 3 hour of endurance
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. I'd imagine something with 6 to 9 hour endurance is more than sufficient. It will ideally have like a 50+ kg takeoff weight and can carry sensors or communication devices. and fly at 150 to 200 km/h. So, it can hopefully loiter 200 km away from a ship and land on the original ship or another ship's helo deck. For fixed wing type, it would be nice for the wings to be foldable. Again, I have no idea how much this would cost. I think China should be able to build them for under 50k, but having 1000 of these would allow PLAN surface combatants to have much better reconnaissance against incoming missiles, decoys, loiter drones. It could possibly allow them to help with ASW effort, since you'd be able to cover more area.

Light multi purpose drone - This would be great to operate off carriers and LHD/LPDs. You would not expect them to be as capable as something like gj2. They should not require catapult for takeoff. In my mind, they would seriously enhance the fire power of a ship with fixed deck. If you can have up to 50 of these drones that are up to 600 kg in max takeoff weight and can carry up to 150 kg in payload. They'd be able to fly loiter 300 km off the fixed deck, drop a bomb and then come back. They can fly at up to 300 km/h instead of 150. 8 hours of endurance with 100 kg payload would be plenty. With up to 150 kg payload, it could carry multiple bombs/missiles or really capable sensors or even a really light dipping sonar. I would put something like this at maybe 1 million each. You could order 500 of them to be operated off various flat decks.

Dedicated naval attack drone - this would be something like gj11 that would attack off type 076 lhd. It can be launched off catapult. It would have very good ai and be able to operate autonomously with minimal communication. It would ideally be very stealthy, have long combat radius and higher speed requirements (like mach 0.7 cruising speed with turbofan engine). It would be able to carry 1t payload internally and another 2t payload on it's hard point. Something like this would probably cost $20 million each. You would want at most 10 of them on each deck. They should have higher availability than regular manned aircraft, so can make multiple sorties per day. You could have them as part of manned unmanned teaming with manned stealth aircraft.
 

Abominable

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The bigger the drone is, the more likely it will be shot down. Would you rather have one drone with a 200kg payload or 10 with 20kg?

I think a fixed wing VTOL type with around a 10kg payload is pretty much ideal for the drone swarm. Why around 10kg? Because that payload can do pretty much anything, can penetrate almost all armour with a shaped charge, serve as an incendiary device, AP, etc. If you need to cover a bigger area you just use more drones.

The other big advantage - it allows the use of electric only drones. They are quieter (a big factor), cheaper, easier to deploy and maintain. Anything bigger and you will be forced to use a fuelled drone. Fuel drones are still useful as they have much better endurance, but its good to have to option to deploy either from one platform/airframe

With Taiwan I'd want to launch them as close as Taiwan as possible, ideally through a drone carrier - which would just be a normal sized ship with VTOL. Once they've dropped their payload their range will increase significantly

As for suicide drones, I think there is an overlap with the platform I'm describing above. The advantage of suicide drones are a bigger payload to total mass and simplicity of not having to deal with receiving drones - you don't need to worry about a landing pad/parachute recovery and if it's pilot controlled they can switch over to controlling a new drone sooner.

With drones that are recovered you get to reuse them, which is cheaper overall. They are also less bandwidth dependent as a high quality video capture can be stored locally with an inferior live feed stream wirelessly. I've heard people say bandwidth limitations could be a limiting factor in drone warfare.

I think it'll come down to how drones survive against a peer adversary. If enough of them are surviving then it makes sense to go the recovery route. If few survive you may as well switch to kamikaze drones with a bigger payload/smaller size.

I think China should use the Ukraine war to test drone theory out, it's a one in a lifetime opportunity to test NATO air defences. Send in civilian "experts" armed with a range of civilian only drones and deploy them far from front lines so there is no blowback.
 
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Blitzo

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It needs to be able to take off from land and fixed decks.

Why would a suicide drone (what you're describing seems to be a loitering cruise missile/munition) need the ability to land?
Or rather, why would such a weapon be needed to operate from decks to begin with -- wouldn't it make more sense to have such aircraft be containerized like a missile?

A more compact version of Harop would fit what you're describing quite well, and given they are stored in dedicated launch tubes/cells like AShMs, you don't have to worry about operating them from flight decks or anything.


As for the rest...

VTOL drone -- such a drone should already be in advanced development. We've seen mockups of this thing on 075s as they've been at dock and done sea trials over the last few years, which for the PLA would mean the aircraft is probably quite far along in works.
qlUeP2i.jpeg

vtol uav.jpg


Light multipurpose drone -- operating such an aircraft, one which is even less capable than GJ-2, would be a waste of flight deck space for a carrier. Also, not sure how this drone would carrying a dipping sonar given it cannot hover in one place.

Dedicated naval attack drone -- a stealthy flying wing strike UCAV is definitely going to be on the cards, and will be the primary fixed wing complement for 076 and the CATOBARs.



Overall, I think you might be taking some of the wrong lessons from the drone experience in Ukraine.
MALE drones with relatively small payloads (100kg) have their role, but they are not survivable against any sort of foe with semi-intact, semi-modern air defenses, and are not very useful in a naval environment against capable foes.
Furthermore, if you want to deploy fixed wing UAVs from valuable big deck ships (carriers or 076s), then the UAVs deployed from those ships should be adequately survivable in a naval environment -- in the PLA's case, it means that the UAVs should be survivable in a high intensity air-naval conflict.
Which is a longer way of saying: carriers and 076s are valuable platforms, and should not have their valuable flight deck real estate wasted for MALE drones that are unable to survive and unable to meaningfully contribute to a high intensity conflict.
At minimum they should be HALE drones (if for ISR) -- and ideally should be VLO.

MALE drones are fine against foes who lack air defenses or whose air defenses have already been defeated.
They are also fine during peacetime for peacetime ISR.
 

siegecrossbow

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Why would a suicide drone (what you're describing seems to be a loitering cruise missile/munition) need the ability to land?
Or rather, why would such a weapon be needed to operate from decks to begin with -- wouldn't it make more sense to have such aircraft be containerized like a missile?

A more compact version of Harop would fit what you're describing quite well, and given they are stored in dedicated launch tubes/cells like AShMs, you don't have to worry about operating them from flight decks or anything.


As for the rest...

VTOL drone -- such a drone should already be in advanced development. We've seen mockups of this thing on 075s as they've been at dock and done sea trials over the last few years, which for the PLA would mean the aircraft is probably quite far along in works.
qlUeP2i.jpeg

View attachment 91463


Light multipurpose drone -- operating such an aircraft, one which is even less capable than GJ-2, would be a waste of flight deck space for a carrier. Also, not sure how this drone would carrying a dipping sonar given it cannot hover in one place.

Dedicated naval attack drone -- a stealthy flying wing strike UCAV is definitely going to be on the cards, and will be the primary fixed wing complement for 076 and the CATOBARs.



Overall, I think you might be taking some of the wrong lessons from the drone experience in Ukraine.
MALE drones with relatively small payloads (100kg) have their role, but they are not survivable against any sort of foe with semi-intact, semi-modern air defenses, and are not very useful in a naval environment against capable foes.
Furthermore, if you want to deploy fixed wing UAVs from valuable big deck ships (carriers or 076s), then the UAVs deployed from those ships should be adequately survivable in a naval environment -- in the PLA's case, it means that the UAVs should be survivable in a high intensity air-naval conflict.
Which is a longer way of saying: carriers and 076s are valuable platforms, and should not have their valuable flight deck real estate wasted for MALE drones that are unable to survive and unable to meaningfully contribute to a high intensity conflict.
At minimum they should be HALE drones (if for ISR) -- and ideally should be VLO.

MALE drones are fine against foes who lack air defenses or whose air defenses have already been defeated.
They are also fine during peacetime for peacetime ISR.

Suicide drones can still be recoverable if they failed to engage a target during the mission.
 

Blitzo

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Suicide drones can still be recoverable if they failed to engage a target during the mission.

Sure, but wasting a carrier or 076 flight deck for it is a waste of resources.

And frankly, during a high intensity conflict, availability of targets probably won't be an issue. Heck, during a high intensity conflict it might even be preferable to just let your suicide drone self destruct if it fails to find a target, rather than try to recover, refuel and relaunch it from a carrier or 076 which should be doing high intensity cyclical fixed wing operations.
 

tphuang

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Why would a suicide drone (what you're describing seems to be a loitering cruise missile/munition) need the ability to land?
Or rather, why would such a weapon be needed to operate from decks to begin with -- wouldn't it make more sense to have such aircraft be containerized like a missile?

A more compact version of Harop would fit what you're describing quite well, and given they are stored in dedicated launch tubes/cells like AShMs, you don't have to worry about operating them from flight decks or anything.


As for the rest...

VTOL drone -- such a drone should already be in advanced development. We've seen mockups of this thing on 075s as they've been at dock and done sea trials over the last few years, which for the PLA would mean the aircraft is probably quite far along in works.
qlUeP2i.jpeg

View attachment 91463


Light multipurpose drone -- operating such an aircraft, one which is even less capable than GJ-2, would be a waste of flight deck space for a carrier. Also, not sure how this drone would carrying a dipping sonar given it cannot hover in one place.

Dedicated naval attack drone -- a stealthy flying wing strike UCAV is definitely going to be on the cards, and will be the primary fixed wing complement for 076 and the CATOBARs.



Overall, I think you might be taking some of the wrong lessons from the drone experience in Ukraine.
MALE drones with relatively small payloads (100kg) have their role, but they are not survivable against any sort of foe with semi-intact, semi-modern air defenses, and are not very useful in a naval environment against capable foes.
Furthermore, if you want to deploy fixed wing UAVs from valuable big deck ships (carriers or 076s), then the UAVs deployed from those ships should be adequately survivable in a naval environment -- in the PLA's case, it means that the UAVs should be survivable in a high intensity air-naval conflict.
Which is a longer way of saying: carriers and 076s are valuable platforms, and should not have their valuable flight deck real estate wasted for MALE drones that are unable to survive and unable to meaningfully contribute to a high intensity conflict.
At minimum they should be HALE drones (if for ISR) -- and ideally should be VLO.

MALE drones are fine against foes who lack air defenses or whose air defenses have already been defeated.
They are also fine during peacetime for peacetime ISR.
I said it needs to be able to take off from land and naval ships, not that it needs to land anywhere.

As for why would they need to be able to takeoff, I am looking at it from the angle of keeping cost down. I am making the estimation that if the product is built similar to how the really cheap civilian drones are built, you can keep the cost down to really low levels. So that they can be useful even if they don't have the speed of something you fire out of a launcher like harpy. I could be entirely wrong about that, but the cost of mugin 5 is so low, that I think something built to pla requirements would still be really cheap.
 

Blitzo

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I said it needs to be able to take off from land and naval ships, not that it needs to land anywhere.

Ah I see. That does make it a bit easier.

As for why would they need to be able to takeoff, I am looking at it from the angle of keeping cost down. I am making the estimation that if the product is built similar to how the really cheap civilian drones are built, you can keep the cost down to really low levels. So that they can be useful even if they don't have the speed of something you fire out of a launcher like harpy. I could be entirely wrong about that, but the cost of mugin 5 is so low, that I think something built to pla requirements would still be really cheap.

I think the pursuit of lower cost drones for their cost effectiveness is wise, but I think we should avoid reading too much into the Ukrainian strike with the mugin 5 drone and whether such a solution would be appropriate for the PLA.

Attacking a poorly defended, large and fixed target with a low, slow flying drone over land, carrying a relative small payload, against a foe lacking in robust air defenses against low flying targets, where the drone could be launched from land and where the attackers had the benefit of using as much time as they needed to carry out their strike (i.e.: virtually no time sensitivity, no need for the drone to be "ready to launch" at any given moment), significantly reduces the costs, of the drone itself.

But for a regular military, those same benefits may not apply, especially if operating against a highly technologically advanced adversary, and especially if it is in a conflict that will be fought at thousands of kilometers of distance across ocean in a naval environment.


For the PLA, they'll probably want such a system to be:
- relatively mobile (ideally truck/TEL mounted)
- have a relatively low footprint in terms of both physical launch requirements (i.e.: not needing a runway for it) and in terms of manpower
- have a relatively short preparation period to launch
- be "militarized" in terms of hardening of onboard navigation, guidance, terminal seeker (if any)

.... and all the while have reasonable range and payload for the missions that they want to carry out.

Add all that together, and sure, if one is able to produce it in a relatively cheap manner, then it certainly could be attractive.
But what I described is also basically just something like Harop or Harpy, so there's that.
 

vincent

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Sure, but wasting a carrier or 076 flight deck for it is a waste of resources.

And frankly, during a high intensity conflict, availability of targets probably won't be an issue. Heck, during a high intensity conflict it might even be preferable to just let your suicide drone self destruct if it fails to find a target, rather than try to recover, refuel and relaunch it from a carrier or 076 which should be doing high intensity cyclical fixed wing operations.
Drones can be launched from empty container ships
 

Blitzo

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Drones can be launched from empty container ships

If they're containerized drones like Harop or Harpy, sure, it could have some sort of role as augmenting the overall fires of a nation (especially at the early stages of a conflict -- though you're also inviting the enemy start targeting all of your container ships as legitimate military targets).

If you're using an entire empty container ship as a jury rigged miniature "cheap drone carrier" using the container ship's topside as a flight deck, then lol no.
 

tphuang

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Ah I see. That does make it a bit easier.



I think the pursuit of lower cost drones for their cost effectiveness is wise, but I think we should avoid reading too much into the Ukrainian strike with the mugin 5 drone and whether such a solution would be appropriate for the PLA.

Attacking a poorly defended, large and fixed target with a low, slow flying drone over land, carrying a relative small payload, against a foe lacking in robust air defenses against low flying targets, where the drone could be launched from land and where the attackers had the benefit of using as much time as they needed to carry out their strike (i.e.: virtually no time sensitivity, no need for the drone to be "ready to launch" at any given moment), significantly reduces the costs, of the drone itself.

But for a regular military, those same benefits may not apply, especially if operating against a highly technologically advanced adversary, and especially if it is in a conflict that will be fought at thousands of kilometers of distance across ocean in a naval environment.


For the PLA, they'll probably want such a system to be:
- relatively mobile (ideally truck/TEL mounted)
- have a relatively low footprint in terms of both physical launch requirements (i.e.: not needing a runway for it) and in terms of manpower
- have a relatively short preparation period to launch
- be "militarized" in terms of hardening of onboard navigation, guidance, terminal seeker (if any)

.... and all the while have reasonable range and payload for the missions that they want to carry out.

Add all that together, and sure, if one is able to produce it in a relatively cheap manner, then it certainly could be attractive.
But what I described is also basically just something like Harop or Harpy, so there's that.
I would have agreed with you before this week without a second thought, but mugin 5 managed to evade Russian air defense. An air defense where Ukrainian no longer are willing to deploy tb2 or even mq1c against. I wouldn't exactly call that poorly defended. In fact, I don't see Okinawa better defended than that after an initial success attack on it. You can also get more loitering over an area with a slow moving piston powered uav vs something like harpy.

I am probably over thinking this, but it would be interesting to see what kind of lessons pla draw from drone usage in this conflict.
 

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