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The Drone Index: CASC-ATFTC FH-97

November 12, 2021
Via Chinese state media.

What made Air Show China 2021 different from its previous installments was this year’s overwhelming emphasis on military technology. Although China’s aerospace sector has never been modest about its ambitions the presence of so many combat aircraft featured at the week-long show (from September 28 until October 3) was unprecedented in scale and variety. When it came to fixed wing unmanned aircraft there were at least eight models on display indoors and outdoors. It’s difficult to judge which was the most impressive but the FH-97 is close enough. When the day comes that it teams with the PLAN’s carrier-based stealth aircraft regional adversaries may find themselves outmatched to an unbearable degree.

The FH-97 comes from a joint venture involving the state-owned aerospace manufacturer CASC, whose CH-family of drones have found export success, and represents a new direction for its unmanned systems. A sleek jet-powered fuselage able to deliver a modest payload “teams” with a manned fighter jet, resulting in a heavily networked aerial combat formation. This concept was embraced by air forces in the West a decade ago and is now bearing fruit–the Boeing Loyal Wingman program in Australia is flight testing the locally assembled subsonic drones. It appears China’s aerospace sector are catching up fast and their attempt at the same is integrating many different types of manned/unmanned attack aircraft.

The mock up of the FH-97 displayed at Air Show China’s indoor venue had an open cargo bay where, judging by the loitering munitions arranged below it, a weapons payload is carried. Having an internal cargo bay, along with the crystaline electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) pod on its “nose,” indicates a combat role instead of just data linking and situational awareness for its manned fighter jet counterpart. The shape of the fuselage suggests a low radar cross-section that complements sorties with a fifth-generation stealth fighter jet. These observable details point to a stealthy UCAV for long-range strikes deep inside enemy airspace. Chinese media report the FH-97 is capable of networking with other drones like the twin-boom FH-95 for collecting mission data before concerted sorties. Adoption and mass-production of the FH-97 won’t pose any challenges to CASC and this should be a cause for alarm among US allies in East Asia.

Many characteristics of the FH-97 remain unknown, however. But since it belongs to a new generation of jet-powered UCAVs a few basic comparisons are helpful. Without specifying their engine types, US aerospace manufacturers such as Kratos revealed their jet-powered UCAVs like the subsonic XQ-58A Valkyrie have ranges exceeding 5,000 kilometers. Meanwhile, Boeing’s Loyal Wingman boasts a mission range of more than 3,700 km. The PLAAF operate long endurance drones such as the WZ-7 that travel as far as 7,000 km. Since the FH-97 looks like it was meant for manned/unmanned teaming with the J-20 its own mission range can be in the neighborhood of at least 2,000 km. It does help that the FH-97 was designed for a small payload and the Chinese media described it as a “medium-range high speed” drone. In 2020 the Russian manufacturer Kronstadt Group displayed the mock up for its jet-powered Grom (Thunder) UCAV and revealed it was primarily a strike platform with a large payload; this meant its range only reached 800 km according to Russian media.

During Aero India 2021 the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) unveiled its own mock up of a jet-powered UCAV for “teaming” missions. The CATS Warrior had a similar layout as its counterparts elsewhere–swept wing with a v-tail and an engine intake above the fuselage. Unfortunately, the CATS Warrior won’t even be testing for several years more and many attempts at jet powered UCAVs such as the EADS Barracuda have gone nowhere. CASC’s FH-97, on the other hand, could have entered production by now with multiple improvements. This isn’t too far-fetched given the rapid pace of Chinese civil-military fusion and its non-stop overproduction. China’s aerospace sector manufactures the only twin engine stealth fighter in Asia and another twin engine supposedly carrier-based model is entering service. A long-range stealth bomber is in the works too. The advent of so many stealthy UAVs and UCAVs means Chinese air superiority in the Pacific Rim will be cemented this decade.

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