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IS CHINA AHEAD OF AMERICA IN NEXT-GENERATION UNMANNED AIRCRAFT?

Zarvan

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The China Airshow in Zhuhai is the annual exhibition that China uses, for both political and commercial reasons, to display the progress of her aerospace capabilities. Like previous editions, this year’s event saw China unveil several technologies, including a thrust-vectoring low-bypass turbofan engine and a jam-resistant and counter-stealth quantum-radar. The bulk of the attention, however, went to the mockup of a new stealth drone, the CH-7, that resembles Northrop Grumman’s XB-47B demonstrator.

Many analysts and observers reacted to this news with concern, and some commentators even concluded that, with this new achievement, China has already passed or will soon pass the United States in next-generation unmanned aircraft technology. Sam Brannen, for example, goes as far as to claim that “We [the United States] were a leader and now we are a laggard, stuck with expensive manned options and not doing nearly the experimentation and learning we need to. We’ll need to watch and learn from China and others now.”

This specific case deserves attention for two main reasons. On the one hand, concerns about the United States losing its superiority in drone technology have been voiced for quite some time. Over four years ago, some scholars were warning that “the rest of the world [was] quickly catching up.” Many scholars and observers have worried in fact that low costs and technological simplicity may favor the proliferation of drones with direct implications for regional and even global stability. On the other hand, that China is trying to copy foreign technology is nothing new, and many have wondered whether the new opportunities opened up by the digital age, such as cyber-espionage, might pave the way to a new era in great power rivalry in which technological advantages are inevitably transient. Fortunately, both of these conclusions are largely exaggerated.

What can we learn from the Chinese drones on display? We can learn close to nothing by simply looking at them. As it is the case for mobile phones, laptops, and cars, the external shape of modern weapon systems reveals little about their overall quality and performance. The reason for this is simple: The most important features of modern weapon systems — the sensors, the software, the data-fusion capabilities, as well as the software engineering and the system architecture — cannot be observed in a photograph. Even when it comes to features that depend directly on the external shape of an aircraft, such as its low-observability (i.e., stealth) to radar, it is not possible to infer its radar-cross section by simply “eye-balling” it. The only exceptions are evident mistakes in design or specific aspects known to increase radar reflections — i.e., those very mistakes and aspects that people have pointed out with regard to the Chinese stealth fighter, the J-20 Black Eagle.

What do we know about Chinese aerospace sensors and software? Without access to intelligence, it is very difficult to assess the Chinese capabilities in this realm. Without doubt, over the past 20 years China has accomplished impressive results in the aerospace sector, including defense electronics. Yet, it has also encountered some roadblocks. We know that the J-20 does not carry an air-to-ground electro-optical targeting system and the development of some of its infrared sensors and flight control software have faced several problems. So, the little we do know tells us there is no good reason to believe that the development of its next-generation drone will avoid similar problems, especially because an autonomous system like the one on display at Zhuhai requires “significantly larger and more complex” software than a manned fighter like the J-20 does. As an important work on this very topic put it, the employment of this type of drone will require software “capable of contextual decision-making” whose development “[is] likely to prove the greatest obstacle” for any country interested in pursuing this technology.

Can we say that China has closed the gap with U.S. drone technology? It seems rather unlikely. We don’t know how advanced Chinese technological-industrial capabilities are. But there is no reason to conclude that a mockup on display is even close to being operational or that it will be ready for deployment any time soon. Modern weapon systems require years of research and development, with extensive and exhausting testing and refinement activities until Swiss-watch level of perfection is achieved, as extremely minor mistakes and imperfections are sufficient to lead to systemic failure or to make the aircraft vulnerable to enemy counter-measures. And since progress in radar technology and signal processing has eroded some of the advantages of early stealth aircraft, this is particularly true for systems designed for operating in segregated air spaces. The margin for error has hence become even smaller. As we explain in our article in the winter 2018/19 issue of International Security on the limits of imitation, reverse-engineering and cyber-espionage (Vol. 43, No. 3) the complexity of modern weapon systems is such that a myriad of extremely small and subtle problems can easily emerge, with each being possibly sufficient to undermine the very mission of the aircraft or to compromise its reliability. This is particularly the case for software, where even a relatively small error rate such as 5.9 defects for every 1,000 lines of software code will lead to problems that are time-consuming and difficult to address, since the software of modern jet fighters runs into million lines of code. Unfortunately for would-be military-tech giants, there is no shortcut: Anticipating, detecting, identifying, understanding, and addressing technical problems during large defense projects entail a lot of time and effort. Even a very successful defense project can experience countless difficult problems.

As pictures of the CH-7 started emerging from Zhuhai, many pointed out the evident similarities with Northrop Grumman’s XB-47B demonstrator and with the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, leading many to conclude that China simply copied American technology.

The Sentinel is the same drone that crashed in Iran and that Tehran allegedly “reverse-engineered.” In the Iranian case, however, there is no evidence that it copied anything other than the frame, given that the model on display lacked even the landing gear. Are concerns in the case of China warranted, given its massive cyber-espionage campaign? As we explain in our forthcoming article, imitating advanced weapon systems is much more difficult than generally accepted by international relations scholars and practitioners. Among the many reasons that account for this difficulty is that the know-how related to new weapon systems does not spread from country to country as easily as generally assumed, despite modern communication technologies. Large fractions of this know-how is in fact tacit, and as former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and co-authors have pointed out, “[t]acit knowledge is a route for maintaining a technological edge in military systems: what cannot be written down can hardly be stolen.”

A skeptical reader might still believe that China has caught up with the U.S. in terms of next-generation drone technology. Even if she were right, recent commentaries would still be exaggerated. The most likely employment for the stealth drones China displayed would be as forward sensors working in formation with other manned and unmanned platforms or for air-to-surface strikes. As we have discussed in our 2016 article in Security Studies on the constraints to the diffusion of drone warfare in the, conventional military operations like these involve a network of naval (submarine and surface), ground, aerial and spatial platforms, nodes and centers, encompassing an incredibly large number of very skilled personnel tasked with different functions, from data-management and distribution, to logistical support and maintenance. This means that, even if China had this next-generation drone ready at its disposal, it would provide relatively little in terms of capability improvements, as long as the other nodes are not up to that same standard: The performance of a network depends in fact strictly on the performance of its weakest node.

Andrea Gilli is a Senior Researcher in Military Affairs at the NATO Defense College in Rome, Italy and an affiliate at CISAC, Stanford University. He was previously a post-doctoral fellow at Belfer Center, Harvard University; CISAC, Stanford University; and CSS, Metropolitan-University Prague. The views expressed in this article do not represent those of NATO or of the NATO Defense College.

Mauro Gilli is a Senior Researcher in Military Technology and International Security at the Federal Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH-Zurich). He was previously a post-doctoral fellow at the Dickey Center, Dartmouth College.

Image: Mztourist

https://warontherocks.com/2018/11/is-china-ahead-of-america-in-next-generation-unmanned-aircraft/
 

MastanKhan

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The China Airshow in Zhuhai is the annual exhibition that China uses, for both political and commercial reasons, to display the progress of her aerospace capabilities. Like previous editions, this year’s event saw China unveil several technologies, including a thrust-vectoring low-bypass turbofan engine and a jam-resistant and counter-stealth quantum-radar. The bulk of the attention, however, went to the mockup of a new stealth drone, the CH-7, that resembles Northrop Grumman’s XB-47B demonstrator.

Many analysts and observers reacted to this news with concern, and some commentators even concluded that, with this new achievement, China has already passed or will soon pass the United States in next-generation unmanned aircraft technology. Sam Brannen, for example, goes as far as to claim that “We [the United States] were a leader and now we are a laggard, stuck with expensive manned options and not doing nearly the experimentation and learning we need to. We’ll need to watch and learn from China and others now.”

This specific case deserves attention for two main reasons. On the one hand, concerns about the United States losing its superiority in drone technology have been voiced for quite some time. Over four years ago, some scholars were warning that “the rest of the world [was] quickly catching up.” Many scholars and observers have worried in fact that low costs and technological simplicity may favor the proliferation of drones with direct implications for regional and even global stability. On the other hand, that China is trying to copy foreign technology is nothing new, and many have wondered whether the new opportunities opened up by the digital age, such as cyber-espionage, might pave the way to a new era in great power rivalry in which technological advantages are inevitably transient. Fortunately, both of these conclusions are largely exaggerated.

What can we learn from the Chinese drones on display? We can learn close to nothing by simply looking at them. As it is the case for mobile phones, laptops, and cars, the external shape of modern weapon systems reveals little about their overall quality and performance. The reason for this is simple: The most important features of modern weapon systems — the sensors, the software, the data-fusion capabilities, as well as the software engineering and the system architecture — cannot be observed in a photograph. Even when it comes to features that depend directly on the external shape of an aircraft, such as its low-observability (i.e., stealth) to radar, it is not possible to infer its radar-cross section by simply “eye-balling” it. The only exceptions are evident mistakes in design or specific aspects known to increase radar reflections — i.e., those very mistakes and aspects that people have pointed out with regard to the Chinese stealth fighter, the J-20 Black Eagle.

What do we know about Chinese aerospace sensors and software? Without access to intelligence, it is very difficult to assess the Chinese capabilities in this realm. Without doubt, over the past 20 years China has accomplished impressive results in the aerospace sector, including defense electronics. Yet, it has also encountered some roadblocks. We know that the J-20 does not carry an air-to-ground electro-optical targeting system and the development of some of its infrared sensors and flight control software have faced several problems. So, the little we do know tells us there is no good reason to believe that the development of its next-generation drone will avoid similar problems, especially because an autonomous system like the one on display at Zhuhai requires “significantly larger and more complex” software than a manned fighter like the J-20 does. As an important work on this very topic put it, the employment of this type of drone will require software “capable of contextual decision-making” whose development “[is] likely to prove the greatest obstacle” for any country interested in pursuing this technology.

Can we say that China has closed the gap with U.S. drone technology? It seems rather unlikely. We don’t know how advanced Chinese technological-industrial capabilities are. But there is no reason to conclude that a mockup on display is even close to being operational or that it will be ready for deployment any time soon. Modern weapon systems require years of research and development, with extensive and exhausting testing and refinement activities until Swiss-watch level of perfection is achieved, as extremely minor mistakes and imperfections are sufficient to lead to systemic failure or to make the aircraft vulnerable to enemy counter-measures. And since progress in radar technology and signal processing has eroded some of the advantages of early stealth aircraft, this is particularly true for systems designed for operating in segregated air spaces. The margin for error has hence become even smaller. As we explain in our article in the winter 2018/19 issue of International Security on the limits of imitation, reverse-engineering and cyber-espionage (Vol. 43, No. 3) the complexity of modern weapon systems is such that a myriad of extremely small and subtle problems can easily emerge, with each being possibly sufficient to undermine the very mission of the aircraft or to compromise its reliability. This is particularly the case for software, where even a relatively small error rate such as 5.9 defects for every 1,000 lines of software code will lead to problems that are time-consuming and difficult to address, since the software of modern jet fighters runs into million lines of code. Unfortunately for would-be military-tech giants, there is no shortcut: Anticipating, detecting, identifying, understanding, and addressing technical problems during large defense projects entail a lot of time and effort. Even a very successful defense project can experience countless difficult problems.

As pictures of the CH-7 started emerging from Zhuhai, many pointed out the evident similarities with Northrop Grumman’s XB-47B demonstrator and with the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, leading many to conclude that China simply copied American technology.

The Sentinel is the same drone that crashed in Iran and that Tehran allegedly “reverse-engineered.” In the Iranian case, however, there is no evidence that it copied anything other than the frame, given that the model on display lacked even the landing gear. Are concerns in the case of China warranted, given its massive cyber-espionage campaign? As we explain in our forthcoming article, imitating advanced weapon systems is much more difficult than generally accepted by international relations scholars and practitioners. Among the many reasons that account for this difficulty is that the know-how related to new weapon systems does not spread from country to country as easily as generally assumed, despite modern communication technologies. Large fractions of this know-how is in fact tacit, and as former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and co-authors have pointed out, “[t]acit knowledge is a route for maintaining a technological edge in military systems: what cannot be written down can hardly be stolen.”

A skeptical reader might still believe that China has caught up with the U.S. in terms of next-generation drone technology. Even if she were right, recent commentaries would still be exaggerated. The most likely employment for the stealth drones China displayed would be as forward sensors working in formation with other manned and unmanned platforms or for air-to-surface strikes. As we have discussed in our 2016 article in Security Studies on the constraints to the diffusion of drone warfare in the, conventional military operations like these involve a network of naval (submarine and surface), ground, aerial and spatial platforms, nodes and centers, encompassing an incredibly large number of very skilled personnel tasked with different functions, from data-management and distribution, to logistical support and maintenance. This means that, even if China had this next-generation drone ready at its disposal, it would provide relatively little in terms of capability improvements, as long as the other nodes are not up to that same standard: The performance of a network depends in fact strictly on the performance of its weakest node.

Andrea Gilli is a Senior Researcher in Military Affairs at the NATO Defense College in Rome, Italy and an affiliate at CISAC, Stanford University. He was previously a post-doctoral fellow at Belfer Center, Harvard University; CISAC, Stanford University; and CSS, Metropolitan-University Prague. The views expressed in this article do not represent those of NATO or of the NATO Defense College.

Mauro Gilli is a Senior Researcher in Military Technology and International Security at the Federal Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH-Zurich). He was previously a post-doctoral fellow at the Dickey Center, Dartmouth College.

Image: Mztourist

https://warontherocks.com/2018/11/is-china-ahead-of-america-in-next-generation-unmanned-aircraft/
Hi,

@Zarvan---what do you say about this article---? What do you think about it---?
 

war&peace

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Hi,

@Zarvan---what do you say about this article---? What do you think about it---?
Honestly, US MIC comfortably ahead of China. There are some fields in which China has shown promising progress like Quantum communication and lasers etc but it is still playing a catch up game with USA however, the pace of growth China has shown is unprecedented and cost of development in China is fraction of that in US so I'm sure that within a decade max, China will be fully at par or even ahead of USA in certain fields. It may happen earlier than later.
 

LeGenD

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How is a mockup a demonstration of superiority in this domain? The author is not making sense.

There is also the issue that US does not export its advanced drones to other countries, and does not allow potential visitors to check them out.

Nevertheless, China dispatched a delegation to Iran to study the RQ-170 Sentinel drone which fell into hands of Iran in 2011. It is possible that China have a functioning prototype by now.

On the other hand, RQ-170 platform is evolving - a new variant was spotted in 2017: http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zon...0-stealth-spy-drone-appears-at-vandenberg-afb

The endgame is the next-generation RQ-180 drone which will be autonomous to large extent, and with the capability to defeat other aircraft in combat. This drone would be the unmanned workhorse of USAF in the near future - slated to replace MQ-9 Predator.

An RQ-180 prototype already exist (hints from informed sources), but its developer have not made it public yet.

---

MQ-9 Reaper now have air-to-air engagment capabilities - the first for any drone:
http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zon...reaper-shot-down-target-drone-during-exercise

- an important development for RQ-180 program as well.
 

Beast

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Honestly, US MIC comfortably ahead of China. There are some fields in which China has shown promising progress like Quantum communication and lasers etc but it is still playing a catch up game with USA however, the pace of growth China has shown is unprecedented and cost of development in China is fraction of that in US so I'm sure that within a decade max, China will be fully at par or even ahead of USA in certain fields. It may happen earlier than later.
China AWACS are all AESA generation ahead of US PESA AWACS. In terms of manufacturing combat airframe, China are ahead US with far more advance 3D printing and manufacturing technique. The Chinese 80000tons hydraulic forger help making far superior aircraft structure which US don't have.
 

JohnWick

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Well if you see that uncle sam made f-22 nearly 30 years ago which is still comparable or even better than all other 5th gen fighter.
The kept all there secret stuff in Area 51
 

Zarvan

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Hi,

@Zarvan---what do you say about this article---? What do you think about it---?
Until now China isn't but within a decade it would be the moment China manages to complete engines which are under development in China game will totally change in favor of China
 

LeGenD

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China AWACS are all AESA generation ahead of US PESA AWACS. In terms of manufacturing combat airframe, China are ahead US with far more advance 3D printing and manufacturing technique. The Chinese 80000tons hydraulic forger help making far superior aircraft structure which US don't have.
FYI: https://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/exclusive-p-8-poseidon-flies-with-shadowy-radar-system-1562912667

There is another which have the potential to obtain a lock on even J-20 class stealthy aircraft.
 

Beast

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war&peace

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China AWACS are all AESA generation ahead of US PESA AWACS. In terms of manufacturing combat airframe, China are ahead US with far more advance 3D printing and manufacturing technique. The Chinese 80000tons hydraulic forger help making far superior aircraft structure which US don't have.
Yes, eventually China will catch up with USA in a decade or so.
 

beijingwalker

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China is ahead of US in next generation weapon research like hypersonic vehicles, quantum science and AI technology while US leads in tradtional military sectors, but the world is changing fast and China can leapfrog US in the future weaponry research. The next war will be very likely fought without combat personnels.

Think about where Chinese military was 10 years ago and where Chinese military is now today and where she would be 10 years from now.
 

LeGenD

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Flank AESA is not able to get 360 degrees coverage. China has try with kj-200 awac but only 4 is made and mass production of 3 phased array AESA KJ-500.

There is a reason why E-2D Hawkeye and E-3 sentry still stick with mechanical steering PESA.
Friend,

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye is replacing the older E-2D Hawkeye, and its radar system (AN/APY-9) is a hybrid solution:

"According to Northrop Grumman, current mechanically scanned and pure electronically scanned radars have inherent shortcomings that limit their effectiveness and compromise their capabilities. The Advanced Hawkeye’s completely new APY-9 radar merges a traditional mechanically scanned antenna with steerable electronic scanning: Operators get the best of both world (or more accurately, the best of both technologies). Mechanically rotated electronic scan radar provides uniform 360 detection coverage, independent of ownship aircraft orientation to the target. No compromises as seen when integrated fixed radars on commercial aircraft."

Source: http://www.navyrecognition.com/inde...sense-of-the-xxist-century-us-navy-fleet.html

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye can obtain a lock on even the most elusive of threats. The true extent of its capabilities are largely classified in the public domain.

In case of P8A Poseidon and E3D/G Sentry, sensor-netting does the trick.

Radar systems significantly vary in design and mission capabilities; their design philosophy extend much beyond mere AESA and PESA designations of current age, in reality.

Some of the most powerful radar systems out there, are PESA types or hybrids. You will find interesting answers from engineers in Quora to certain queries.
 
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jhungary

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China AWACS are all AESA generation ahead of US PESA AWACS. In terms of manufacturing combat airframe, China are ahead US with far more advance 3D printing and manufacturing technique. The Chinese 80000tons hydraulic forger help making far superior aircraft structure which US don't have.
lol.....I guess if you want to believe that.

In reality, do you think E-3 or E-2 still using the same PESA radar they have when they rolled out of the factory 40 years ago? And to a point, AESA radar may not be any better than PESA radar in itself is debatable too.

The rest of your point are "Debatable"

China is ahead of US in next generation weapon research like hypersonic vehicles, quantum science and AI technology while US leads in tradtional military sectors, but the world is changing fast and China can leapfrog US in the future weaponry research. The next war will be very likely fought without combat personnels.

Think about where Chinese military was 10 years ago and where Chinese military is now today and where she would be 10 years from now.
How do you know China is ahead of next generation weapon like the one you claim?

US did not generally release research in their shunkwork, which to this day we still do not know what X-37B is for (and it was a hypersonic vehicle, and both WU-14 and X-51 are of similar character and similar time period. At best I can say China is on par with US with regard to HSSV. Again, we never know what's going on the Shunkwork project, so we do not know what is the current status in the US.

Quantum Technology between China and the United States are on different route. We do not actually know who is ahead at this point (Don't forget Chinese first "Quantum Bits computer" are still using US/Australian Technology. Actually, since China announce they have made the first Quantum Teleportation and Quantum Computer, there are no word come from China anymore, but since then University of Maryland developed the first reprogrammable quantum computer, and University of Sydney developed the first multi-qbits and so on

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_computing#Timeline

As for AI, well, if you check the academic paper release each year, you will know who is ahead, and that is not China.
 

beijingwalker

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How do you know China is ahead of next generation weapon like the one you claim?

US did not generally release research in their shunkwork, .
You believe that China releases everything she's up to? US reports claim the China is ahead of US in those technologies, not me.
 

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