Chinese air force deploys former fighters turned into drones against Taiwan

The People's Republic of China produced, between the 50s and 80s, nearly 8500 fighter planes derived from Soviet models, such as the Shenyang J-5 derived from the Mig-17 produced in 1800 units, the Shenyang J-6 and the Nanchang Q-5 derived from Mig-19 produced respectively in 4500 and 1300 copies, as well as the Chengdu J-7 derived from Mig-21 and produced in more than 2400 copies. Some of these aircraft, including Q-5s and J-7s, are still in service with the Air Force of the People's Liberation Army, but a majority of these aircraft have been placed in reserve. This mine of devices, many of which are potentially in a condition to resume the air with a maintenance phase, seems destined to be used by the Chinese General Staff in unmanned versions, transforming these agile and fast fighters , admittedly obsolete in many aspects, in combat drones.

For example, the Oriental Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army recently published photos showing the entry into service of two J-6 supersonic twin-jet fighters transformed into drones. In addition, the serial numbers of the devices masked on the photos suggest that this model was already in service with the Chinese air force. At the same time, however, satellite images taken on September 15 of Liancheng Air Base, located opposite Taiwan, showed a very high concentration of J-6, more than 50 devices that analysts believe to be J-6W drone versions, suggesting that this transformation is primarily intended to be used during a possible attack on the independent island by the PLA. Recall that at the same time, several air bases located near the Taiwan Pass, saw their reception and defense capacities significantly increased.

on September 15, 2021, the Liancheng air base, located 350 km from Taiwan, housed around fifty J-6 fighters, probably in drone version.

Entered into service in 1962, the J-6 was the first production supersonic fighter of the Air Force of the People's Liberation Army. Only 12,5 m long (excluding the pitot probe) for a wingspan of 9 meters, the aircraft had an empty weight of 5,2 tonnes, and a maximum takeoff weight of 8,8 tonnes. Its two Wopen WP-6A engines, produced locally by Turmansky RD-9, offered a unit thrust of 2,6 tonnes dry and 3,3 tonnes with afterburner, giving the aircraft an excellent power-to-weight ratio for the time, and thus great maneuverability, especially at high subsonic speed thanks to its high-arrow wings. On the other hand, the J-6 only had a maximum speed of Mach 1,45, and its range was limited to 640 km with additional tanks, well below the performance of the Mig-21 and the J-7. who succeeded him. The armament of the device, consisting of 3 30mm cannons fed at 70 rounds each, and the AA-2 Atoll missile, made it a high-performance fighter for its time, but below more modern and more versatile devices such as the F -4 American Phantom, or the Soviet Mig-21. The last J-6s were withdrawn from service at the end of the 90s in the combat units of the PLAAF.

The use of older generation fighters in drone version offers many opportunities to the People's Liberation Army, should it lead an offensive against Taiwan. Indeed, due to their flight characteristics, it would be very difficult for the Taiwanese anti-aircraft defense to distinguish J-6W drone fighters from a J-16 fighter-bomber or from a J-10C multipurpose fighter, the PLA. This could lead Taiwan to waste a large number of their precious long-range surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles on devices considered to be “consumable”. In addition, unlike target drones which could potentially play a similar role, drone fighters can carry weaponry, such as gravitational bombs including precision with GPS guidance, to strike Taiwanese defenses if anti-defense. -aircraft refused to engage them. A fighter like the J-6 could also act as a “loyal wingman” for the piloted fighters of the PLA, that is to say a winger drone carrying sensors or weapons extending the offensive and defensive capacities of the. piloted device.

The Q-5 is an attack version of the J-6. The Chinese air and naval forces are still lining up 350 of these aircraft, while more than 1000 have been placed in reserve.

However, all these hypotheses assume that the conversion of hunters into drones is technically successful, integrates powerful communication tools, and at least an advanced artificial intelligence capable of assuming the piloting functions and part of the mission control functions. It is precisely the US Air Force's Skyborg program mission, which aims to develop an artificial intelligence capable of being integrated into different types of aircraft, to ensure these functions of piloting, mission control and implementation of sensors and armaments, without requiring an operator on post to pilot the aircraft. On the other hand, we do not know, at least in the public domain, the progress of programs similar to Skyborg developed in China, even if we can assume, given the dynamism shown by Chinese industrialists and armies. in these areas, that Beijing indeed already has a solid technological base in these areas. As such, the Chinese state-owned aircraft manufacturer CASC presented its FH-97 drone, a clone of the XQ-58A Valkyrie from Kratos, the mainstay of the Skyborg program, at this year's Zhuhai Airshow.

One thing is certain, if Chinese engineers have indeed succeeded in integrating such capabilities into obsolete fighters but still having high-performance aeronautical capabilities, and if these technological solutions are financially relevant in the face of other approaches such as the production of modern drones, the number of these aircraft can be expected to increase rapidly in the months and years to come, especially with a view to a military operation on Taiwan. The island is indeed only 350 km from the Chinese coast, which is well within the reach of older generation hunters like the J-6. These devices could also be put to use on the Sino-Indian Western Front, while New Delhi and Beijing jointly strengthen their defensive devices on the Ladakh plateau. Finally, it should be noted that this same approach could very well be applied to armored vehicles, an area in which Beijing also has a huge fleet with nearly 20.000 Type 59 and Type 69 medium tanks in reserve.

The XQ-58A Valkyrie drone is one of the pillars of the American Skyborg program intended to design an AI capable of piloting different models of drone and ensuring several types of mission, including that of Loyal Wingmen.

We understand, under these conditions, concerns raised by former Pentagon software production chief Nicolas Chaillan, during his resounding resignation at the beginning of October, after having publicly warned that China would soon be able to take the technological ascendancy over the United States in matters of Artificial Intelligence if Washington did not react promptly and massively by strengthening research in this area. And if Beijing like Moscow are indisputably more discreet than the United States or the Europeans in their advances, a growing number of reports and sources estimate that they have largely caught up in recent years, their delays in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, with a progression curve much faster than that of Westerners. The entry into service of these sixties fighters transformed into drones facing Taiwan is one of the many indications that these concerns are well founded.

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