China’s Composite Drone Separation Technology Threatens U.S. ‘Replicator’ Program

Recent developments in drone technology have drawn significant attention, particularly with reports from U.S. defense news outlets stating that the Pentagon plans to invest $1 billion in deploying thousands of drones to counter China under the “Replicator” drone program. Meanwhile, Indian media reports suggest that the Chinese military has initiated highly specialized drone pilot training to adapt to future drone warfare scenarios.

While these drone-related developments in the U.S.-China rivalry have captured global media attention, the most groundbreaking news comes from a report by the South China Morning Post, revealing that Chinese scientists have achieved a breakthrough in composite drone separation technology. This breakthrough is poised to usher in a new era of drone applications, rendering the Pentagon’s “Replicator” drone program bankrupt.

Chinese Scientists Break Through Composite Drone Separation Technology

Internet users are likely familiar with drone warfare scenarios, which typically involve reconnaissance missions like those executed by Global Hawk drones, targeted strikes with missile-equipped drones like Reaper drones, or even suicide drones deployed on battlefields like those seen in Russia and Ukraine. However, a recent breakthrough by Chinese scientists introduces a revolutionary technology previously unattained by Western countries. According to the South China Morning Post, Chinese scientists published a peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of Aeronautics last month, detailing a technology that enables drones to rapidly separate into multiple units as needed.

The paper describes each drone as a component of a larger drone, collectively forming a sizable drone capable of flying at speeds and distances comparable to conventional drones. However, just before reaching a target, these drones can separate into multiple units. Professor Shi Zhiwei, leading the research at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, explains that these drones appear as thin sheets but can freely fly or hover like conventional drones. Moreover, they can communicate with each other, enabling coordinated command, reconnaissance, tracking, and even attack capabilities, facilitating collaborative mission execution.

The paper also outlines international progress in similar research over the years, highlighting efforts by various countries to develop effective composite drone separation technology. The significance of this technology lies in its disruptive nature; intercepting drones traditionally allocated interception resources based on quantity. For instance, when a single drone approaches, interception resources are typically limited. However, if such drones suddenly split into multiple units before reaching the target, as demonstrated in the paper with a potential of up to six units, it presents a formidable challenge for interceptors.

This scenario is particularly daunting for interceptors; for example, a formation of four drones could split into twenty-four units, resembling a small swarm. For a formation of ten drones, it could mean sixty units, surpassing the interception capacity of conventional battlefield air defense systems. Consequently, targets could be systematically locked on and destroyed by drones, leaving interceptors helpless.

Moreover, the paper suggests that previous attempts by other countries to develop similar drone separation technology faced significant challenges, such as poor flight performance and excessive size after assembly, hindering their effectiveness in practical scenarios. However, the version developed by Chinese scientists, while not matching the maximum speed of high-performance military drones, exhibits comparable performance to conventional drones with minimal impact on range. Additionally, the separated drones maintain their performance, increasing pressure on enemy air defense systems. Another potential application of this technology is the assembly of small drones with different functionalities into a reconnaissance drone with multiple mission roles to meet various operational demands.

The Failure of the U.S. “Replicator” Program: The U.S.-China Rivalry is a Multiple-Choice Question

The revelation of this cutting-edge composite drone separation technology from Chinese scientists raises questions about the efficacy of the “Replicator” drone program pursued by the United States. The program, unveiled by Deputy Secretary of Defense Catherine Hicks, primarily targets China, particularly in potential Taiwan Strait crisis scenarios.

The U.S. government anticipates the Taiwan Strait as a critical issue for China to address, identifying it as the only opportunity to restrain China’s development before its formal rise. Consequently, the United States has been preparing various contingency plans for potential Taiwan Strait crises, including the “Porcupine Plan” to arm Taiwan with a significant amount of weaponry and the “Distributed Maritime Operations” plan, aiming to disperse U.S. military forces across Pacific islands to launch multidimensional attacks on China in wartime.

Additionally, there is the Indo-Pacific Alliance, with the United States rallying Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and Southeast Asian countries to collectively confront China. However, regardless of the chosen approach, there is an unavoidable issue: China has been preparing for the Taiwan Strait issue for decades, with numerous contingency plans in place regarding weaponry, logistics, and operational modes. The most concerning weapons for the United States are hypersonic missiles like the DF-17 and DF-27, as military bases in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Australia are unlikely to escape unscathed.

In anticipation of potential Taiwan Strait crises, numerous U.S. think tanks and the Department of Defense have conducted countless war games, attempting to identify vulnerabilities in the PLA’s resolution of the Taiwan Strait crisis, proposing targeted solutions and implementing them. The “Replicator” program emerged within this context.

This program represents a significant gamble for the Pentagon, aiming to deploy thousands of autonomously operated weapon systems within two years, leveraging technological innovation to counter China’s significantly larger traditional weapon inventory. The U.S. political news website reported on August 28 that Deputy Secretary of Defense Catherine Hicks announced the U.S. preparation for implementing the “Replicator” program.

The operational strategy involves the use of low-cost drones by the U.S. military, deployed to the Taiwan Strait region during wartime to execute unmanned suicide missions. In essence, the U.S. military intends to turn the tide using drones. Proposed in August 2023, by early March 2024, the Department of Defense had decided to allocate $1 billion for the program’s implementation.

However, the U.S. Department of Defense seems to have overlooked a crucial aspect: comparing U.S. drones with those of China. While U.S. drones are undoubtedly advanced and powerful, such as the Global Hawk and Reaper drones, they come with exorbitant price tags. For example, India’s purchase of 32 drones amounted to $3.5 billion, surpassing even the cost of China’s J-20 as publicly disclosed on Wikipedia, which is $110 million, causing astonishment.

Notably, not only are U.S. drones expensive for foreign buyers like India, but even the U.S. military finds them costly. During a recent annual war symposium held by the U.S. Air Force and Space Force Association in late February, several congressmen raised a pragmatic question: the high cost of planned U.S. unmanned combat platforms could pose implementation challenges in the future.

U.S. experts echoed similar sentiments. In March, the U.S. Naval Institute proposed, through an online thematic essay, the view that the “Replicator” program might be ineffective against China. One of the most significant challenges of the “Replicator” program lies in overcoming research and development, administrative, bureaucratic, and regulatory obstacles, making project implementation extremely difficult. Moreover, small businesses producing affordable equipment cannot enter the defense contractor ranks.

Another more serious issue is whether the United States can produce thousands of drones within 18 to 24 months. However, as the largest industrialized country globally, China can potentially produce ten times more “Replicator” drones or even more within the same timeframe. (Xing Chen)

Source link