China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) conducted a rare and defining exercise that put together two J-16 fighters and a Wing Loong-2 reconnaissance-strike drone on August 10 as a part of the man-unmanned teaming concept, in what experts indicate has firmed up a near concrete operational-level strike capability.
A Global Times report – that curiously referred to the WL-2 as the GJ-2 – said the exercise demonstrated how even an essential loyal wingman pairing could attain significant tactical goals and hand both planners and pilots many options while executing complex, multi-role missions.
Indeed, the success of the exercise does not imply that the pairing will be made operational immediately. It was possibly meant to finalize basic operating procedures and tactics and, most likely, test certain avionic, communication, and data-linking technology inside the drones.
But the simple exercise is not very far from being adopted, given the pace at which China has fielded its diverse range of military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). It further develops drones and frontline fighter aircraft in their advanced roles.
From all accounts, it appears to be a semi-loyal wingman pairing. The unmanned aircraft is not a jet-powered plane and doesn’t exactly fly alongside the faster, bigger fighter all along.
The pilot still controls it and complements roles as an extended sensor and weapons delivery platform. It possibly defines how an elementary manned-unmanned teaming might look when countries start operationalizing such concepts in its nascent stage.
First Such Exercise
The “joint training” took place at an undisclosed location, with Li Yang, head of a PLA Air Force drone group, saying that “the drones have integrated into the PLA’s combat system and achieved some good results.”
“Future warfare is a confrontation of cognition, and so the ideas and cognition of the people who operate these unmanned weapons and equipment are the deciding factors,” Li said.
Li does not appear to be referring to China’s larger politico-military strategy of ‘cognitive warfare‘ but rather the mental processes and capacity to handle complex technology and electronics in combat.
During the training, the GJ-2 took off from an airfield, with the J-16s waiting behind it, following which the drone fired missiles at some targets. The fighter jets’ role was not elaborated in the report.
Presumably, a simple operation where the drone hit a ground target based on coordinates received from the J-16 was conducted.
The leading electronic system is the data link that transmits sensor information between the drone and the plane. “In all scenarios, the drone and fighter jets are connected by data links that allow them to communicate, distribute missions and transfer data,” Fu Qianshao, an expert quoted in the report, said.
Diverse Options & Force Multiplier
But the variety of applications such teaming offers in multiple tactical battlefield situations by “integrating” and “complementing” each other’s capabilities is critical, with the drones being a force multiplier. Despite the vast differences in the aircraft’s kinematic performance, they can conduct ground attack missions jointly.
This is by interchangeably having either mass combined strikes (if the target is a large or part of a giant ground formation that needs to be destroyed quickly) or alternating ‘tag team’ air-to-ground missions (where an area needs to be kept under surveillance when an adversary is conducting probing attack or intermittently keeps appearing in the engagement zone).
Qianshao laid out some possible scenarios of how the pair can operate. “The slower drone could take off first, and as it approaches the target zone, the faster fighter jets could then take off to catch up and form a formation for a short period above the target zone and carry out missions.”
Alternatively, “the fighter jet arrives at the target zone first using its speed, wins air superiority and launches a first wave of attack, before leaving the target zone to be cleaned and controlled by the slower but longer-enduring drone.”
Fu said the drone could also arrive first to conduct surveillance and summon the fighter jets when necessary. “A few J-16s and a few GJ-2s operating together can carry out operational level strike missions or conduct non-stop strike missions on key tactical targets,” he said.
Is This How Loyal Wingmen Will Look Like Initially?
By any measure, both aircraft will not be kitted with only purely air-to-ground munitions since this operates on the assumption that the skies will not be contested by enemy Air Defense (AD).
This would also be inconsistent with the general orientation of the Chinese military, which is preparing for a war with a peer adversary like the US or India, and not non-state actors that cannot enforce a sky denial.
The J-16, at all times and in all tactical situations, will be armed with air-to-air missiles where the GJ-2/WL-2 would essentially ‘clear the ground’ of anti-air threats, freeing up the J-16 either for further air dominance operations or ground-strike missions.
Depending on the PLAAF’s capability to develop such sophisticated tactics, the pair could also conduct Suppression of Enemy Air Defense/Destruction of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD/DEAD) missions.
The WL-2 could be operated in a way that lights up enemy radars, and with the data transmitting to the J-16, it could release an Anti-Radiation Missile (ARM) to hit the AD site.
It is also not necessary that the WL-2 has to fly in a wingman formation with the J-16, as it could be undertaking extended surveillance of a land area using its long endurance and loiter time.
It can then transmit information about adversary ground movements to other land and air assets, and the J-16 could only be one of them.
Like Russia’s Sirius Medium/High-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE/HALE)-class combat drone, which is part of a “reconnaissance and strike circuit with manned aircraft,” as discussed in a previous EurAsian Times report, the WL-2 could perform a similar role – being in the air regardless of whether manned jets are around. The ‘teaming’ happens as the need arises.
However, crucial technical details about the drone’s operation and the PLAAF doctrinal thinking behind its usage are unknown. Whether the drone is controlled from within the fighter, the ground is semi-autonomous, and to what extent Chinese planners consider it ‘attritable,’ in military terms, a design trait that trades reliability and maintenance for low-cost, reusable, and eventually expendable weapons.
However, it offers the initial vision of the emerging wingman concept.