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What exactly is China's 'airborne aircraft carrier' that launches drones?

China has undertaken considerable research into drone swarms over the past decade

swarm drone mother ship china The drone mother ship | Via Twitter

The one unchanging reality of warfare, throughout the centuries, is the fact the technologies and strategies of war are constantly evolving.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones in common parlance) had entered the laymen's lexicon since the US invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) when the 'Predator' UAVs stole the limelight. The US Predator drones were used for surveillance and later attack missions. But the Predator is already passé: The US Air Force officially retired it in March 2018. While larger and more heavily armed drones have replaced the Predator, smaller UAVs are also becoming popular.

Mini and 'micro' UAVs are being inducted by multiple nations; these systems will give situational awareness to even small groups of soldiers, who can deploy them using little more than a backpack.

Another area of evolution of UAVs has been the 'drone swarm'. Drone swarms are a large number of UAVs "deployed to accomplish a shared objective, with the platforms and/or weapons autonomously altering their behaviour based on communication with one another", according to US journal War on The Rocks. The missions of a drone swarm could include electronic warfare, surveillance and even attacks on enemy targets. A drone swarm has the capability to 'saturate' radars and air defences, complicating an enemy's capability to respond.

On Wednesday, Chinese state media provided details of a unique drone swarm test by a Chinese company, Zhongtian Feilong. Zhongtian Feilong tested an 'airborne swarm carrier', a large UAV that acted as a mother ship to carry multiple smaller drones.

Zhongtian Feilong tested the system on March 20. China's Global Times provided details of the test. "During the test, a mother ship, which seems to be a fixed wing, vertical takeoff and landing-capable drone, carried nine smaller drones, which were folded under the belly of the mother ship... The mother ship opened the aircraft bay after arriving at a designated mission point and dropped the smaller drones in order, while also ensuring the speed, direction, attitude and distance of dropping could match the requirement, so the smaller drones could form a swarm," Global Times reported.

Global Times quoted military experts as explaining the drone mother ship was being "like an airborne aircraft carrier".

Providing details of the mother ship drone, Global Times reported, "This system is characterised by its long range, strong anti-jamming capability, multiple types of payloads, accurate guidance links and low logistics support requirements... it is flexible, safe, highly efficient, independent and easy to operate even under complicated environments for different types of combat missions like reconnaissance, early warning, jamming, attack and evaluation."

Why air-launched swarms matter

An air-launched drone swarm has inherent advantages such as greater deployment range and shorter time to reach a target area. Moreover, using an unmanned mother ship eliminates the need to risk using a manned aircraft to deploy drones. Multiple nations have demonstrated the launch of drones from manned aircraft.

Interestingly, in late March, the US Air Force announced that it had tested the deployment of a small drone from its X-58A Valkyrie stealth UAV. The small drone, called the ALTIUS-600, can be used for "a variety of missions, including electronic warfare... intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance," Defense News reported.

China’s progress in drone swarms

China has undertaken considerable research into drone swarms over the past decade. During the standoff in Ladakh, China demonstrated the use of a drone swarm to deliver food to soldiers on the frontline.

In part, China's progress in drone swarms has been possible due to synchronisation of efforts by military and civilian research entities and companies to accelerate development of cutting-edge technology. The US Department of Defence report for China’s military modernisation in 2020 described this approach as a "whole of society" effort to become a world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. The DOD report noted "In 2019, the private PRC-based company Ziyan UAV exhibited armed swarming drones that it claimed use AI to perform autonomous guidance, target acquisition, and attack execution."

During this year's Army Day parade, the Indian Army demonstrated a swarm of 75 drones that carried out kamikaze attacks, first-aid delivery and parachute payload delivery.

Given the challenges in developing advanced communication and control systems, most work on drone swarms done so far has focussed on small, slow-moving drones that have an endurance of a few hours. In March 2020, researchers at the Beijing Institute of Technology published a paper on development of networking for 'hypersonic UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) swarms'. Hypersonic weapons travel at over 5 times the speed of sound. A swarm of UCAVs that is hypersonic would be extremely difficult to track or intercept with current sensors.