Following the launch of the Type 075 amphibious assault ship, China’s third aircraft carrier, the Fujian ship, has recently revealed new surprises.
According to a report from Global Times, an article on the U.S. website “TheDrive” on the 19th stated that China is testing the deployment of Attack-11 unmanned drones on a full-size aircraft carrier facility. This is the most powerful indication so far that the Attack-11 unmanned drone and its variants may become part of the future carrier-based aircraft fleet of the People’s Liberation Army. If this concept comes to fruition, the PLA Navy will possess capabilities not yet available to the U.S. Navy.
The “TheDrive” website’s report is based on several photos that have recently gone viral on social media, showing Chinese defense industry personnel deploying various types of carrier-based aircraft on the Wuhan aircraft carrier test platform. These include the J-15, J-35, KJ-600, and the Attack-11 unmanned drone.
The “TheDrive” website indicates that it is currently unclear when these photos were taken, but the Attack-11 unmanned drone appears to be a recent addition. This suggests that the PLA is testing the deployment of large unmanned drones on aircraft carriers.
Military enthusiasts familiar with China’s military equipment development process should be aware of the importance of the Wuhan aircraft carrier test platform for China’s carrier and carrier-based aircraft technology verification. Aircraft tested on this “carrier” platform have either entered PLA operational service or are awaiting deployment, such as the KJ-600 and the rumored J-35. Therefore, this further increases the likelihood of deploying the Attack-11 unmanned drone on active PLA aircraft carriers.
The Attack-11 unmanned drone first appeared in the 2019 military parade. According to information from state media and related sources, this large drone features a flying wing layout, an internal weapons bay with a payload of 2 tons, an intake duct located above the fuselage, and streamlined and stealthy design—typical of stealth aircraft.
Last year, CCTV’s military channel revealed a simulated animation of J-20 commanding three Attack-11 unmanned drones in combat. The accompanying text suggested that the combination of manned and unmanned aircraft would be one of the future trends in aerial warfare.
Simultaneously with the introduction of the Attack-11 unmanned drone, China has been conducting research on the shipborne deployment of unmanned drones. In the initial appearance of the Attack-11 in 2019, Hong Kong media South China Morning Post, citing sources, reported that the PLA was attempting to deploy large unmanned drones on the Shandong aircraft carrier. However, due to the inability to conduct aerial refueling, early models of the Attack-11 could only perform reconnaissance missions.
Subsequently, Chinese official media have repeatedly exposed animations or training videos of various drones, including the Attack-11, taking off and landing on the Shandong aircraft carrier and the Type 075 amphibious assault ship.
The advantages of deploying large drones like the Attack-11 on aircraft carriers or amphibious assault ships are self-evident.
Firstly, the maximum value of deploying the Attack-11 unmanned drone on a ship lies in its ability to carry ammunition for striking maritime targets. With longer endurance and a larger combat radius than manned aircraft, large drones can serve as “loyal wingmen” for carrier-based aircraft, maximizing their battlefield awareness and minimizing unnecessary losses.
Secondly, high-altitude, long-endurance drones, or stealthy drones, can approach enemy radar and fleet defense areas more adventurously. They can relay target information back to the rear strike group via directional data links and guide anti-ship missiles to execute attacks. This is an advantage not possessed by maritime patrol aircraft, as the latter must rely on carrier-based aircraft or destroyers for protection to approach targets for reconnaissance during wartime.
Lastly, the operational value of large shipborne drones is not limited to strike and reconnaissance platforms. For instance, the U.S. Navy has attempted to retrofit the MQ-25 unmanned drone into a tanker to expand the operational range of carrier-based aircraft.
It is interesting to note that although China and the U.S. have almost simultaneously initiated research on shipborne unmanned drones, China is more inclined to pursue the technological path of swarm drones or large unmanned attack drones, while the U.S. is betting on unmanned support drones. As early as 2010, the U.S. Navy abandoned the development of large unmanned attack drones.
It can be said that each technological path has its advantages. As of now, China is at least one step ahead of the U.S. in the field of large shipborne unmanned drones. The “TheDrive” website believes that, although retrofitting unmanned drones into operational carrier-based aircraft is a huge challenge, if China succeeds, it will undoubtedly open up a revolutionary path for future naval warfare and pave the way for more advanced naval capabilities.