New footage from Chinese state media outlet CCTV has confirmed that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force is likely to pair its J-20 fifth generation fighters with flying wing stealth drones, which has long been speculated to provide a key force multiplier for fighter units in future. The J-20AS twin seat variant, first unveiled in October 2021, was seen leading a formation of four aircraft with three drones, which resemble the GJ-11 stealth platform, flying in support. The twin seat variant is widely reported to have been developed primarily for the purposes of accommodating a drone controller in the second seat, rather than a trainee or weapons systems officer which is usually the case for such configurations. Use of drone wingmen is expected to be a key feature of future sixth generation fighters, although advanced fifth generation designs most notable the J-20 and American F-35 are also expected to benefit from them in future. The F-35’s lack of a twin seat variant, however, means its options are more limited, although the U.S. Air Force’s upcoming sixth generation fighter being developed under the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter program is expected to come in a twin seat configuration as standard. The J-20 and F-35 are currently the world’s only fifth generation fighters both in production and fielded at squadron level strength.
Tailless flying wing airframes provide optimal stealth capabilities meaning the GJ-11 will likely be even more difficult to form a radar lock on than the J-20 itself, although such aircraft have limited speeds and levels of manoeuvrability meaning they cannot be expected to accompany fighters for all kinds of operations. Less advanced flying wing stealth drones fielded by Iran, which is the only country to have operationalised them other than China and the U.S., have proven highly effective in overseas operations even against some of the world’s most capable air defence systems. The GJ-11’s armaments remain uncertain, with some speculation that the aircraft could carry PL-15 and possibly even PL-XX air to air missiles to significantly increase the anti aircraft firepower of stealth fighter units. The PL-15, which is the J-20’s primary armament, is currently a close contender for the most capable air to air missile built for fighter sized aircraft, with its AESA radar and 200-250km range providing capabilities with few rivals overseas. The J-20 is expected to be paired with other drone classes better suited to air to air operations in future – most notably the Dark Sword unmanned fighter which was unveiled in 2018. Notable rival wingman drone programs include the Boeing MQ-28 Ghost Bat and the Russian S-70 Okhotnik, although a design as ambitious as the Dark Sword has not been see abroad.