China’s aviation advancements are on full display this week at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition and Airshow in Zhuhai, but for those who are well versed in U.S. military aircraft, the event may feel eerily familiar… almost as though you’ve seen all this before.

China’s J-20 and J-31 programs, both considered fifth-generation fighters that are expected to ferry China into the role of 21st-century military powerhouse, are both based on stolen Lockheed Martin plans for the F-22 and F-35 respectively. As NEWSREP has discussed in the past, most of China’s operational fleet of fighters and bombers are actually based on stolen or purchased Russian and American platforms as well… but this week’s airshow came with the unveiling of a brand new Chinese combat drone that could change the way the world perceives Chinese aviation if it proved to be unique and capable.

Instead, it just looks like a hodgepodge of America’s X-47B with elements of the RQ-170 incorporated for good measure.

“Eighty percent of our drone’s technologies are the newest and most advanced, some of which are leading the global [drone] industry,” said Ma Hongzhong, the lead designer of the drone dubbed Tian Ying. It seems likely that at least some of that technology Ma spoke of was introduced soon after a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel drone crashed in Iran in 2011. According to reports from the region, a group of 17 Chinese aerospace experts flew into Tehran four days after the drone went down. While NEWSREP cannot confirm the reports, it was widely rumored that the Chinese team did not only inspect the wreckage but actually brought some components back to China for further reverse engineering.

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However, despite China’s opportunity to work with the RQ-170, it seems that only specific elements of that platform were introduced into China’s new drone. Instead, it borrows more heavily from Northrop Grumman’s X-47B. That point may be particularly important as the X-47B was tested aboard aircraft carriers as a potential offensive asset for the U.S. Navy. Ultimately, the Navy opted to redirect that focus toward fielding autonomous tanker drones to refuel its existing fleet of Super Hornets and F-35s — but China is notably lacking in capable carrier-based fighters.

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator flies near the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

China’s J-15 has been riddled with issues, largely as a result of the fighter being born of an effort to reverse engineer a prototype Su-33 China procured after Russia refused to sell them the plans to build their own. With two new carriers under construction and a large emphasis on naval force projection, it seems possible that this new Chinese drone may be destined to serve as a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) aboard China’s forthcoming carrier fleet.

However, this early prototype appears to have little in the way of weapons fixtures, indicating that it may simply be a technology demonstrator at this stage in its development.

 

*This article originally appeared on NEWSREP courtesy of Alex Hollings.