Airshow China 2022: CASC unveils FH-97A loyal wingman autonomous drone

Developed by Feihong Company under the 9h Academy of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the FH-97A loyal wingman drone is publicly unveiled for the first time at Airshow China 2022. But FH-97 is somehow a clone of Boeing’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat Drone displayed by the same Chinese company that previously unveiled a mockup copying Kratos’ XQ-58A Valkyrie and is at it again with Boeing Australia’s signature design, Joseph Trevitck writes in The Drive: Boeing's Australian subsidiary developed Ghost Bat first for the Royal Australian Air Force, but the U.S. Air Force has also now acquired at least one example ostensibly to support research and development and test and evaluation efforts.

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Airshow China 2022 CASC unveils FH 97A loyal wingman autonomous drone 1 FH-97A loyal wingman model with different munitions: FT-8B, FT-8C, FT-8D, FT-9 and FH-901 loitering munition in Zhuhai Airshow 2022 (Picture source: wb/艺伟影像 tweeted by Jesus Roman)

At Airshow China 2021, China Aerospace Science Technology Corp (CASTC) unveiled some Feihong products, among which the FH-97, a "loyal wingman" UAV. The "loyal wingman" concept envisages that UCAVs (Unmanned Combat UAVs) support the pilots of the fighter aircraft autonomously during combat operations. The unmanned aerial vehicles are intended to independently cover a wide range of tasks in aerial battles, provide close air support, carry on escort tasks, take part in electronic warfare missions (namely to mark targets) and to perform ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) tasks. A video (in Chinese) tweeted by Seguir on November 8 gives a basic overview of the drone, as did Louis Cheung. Jesus Roman also tweeted pictures of the FH-97A.

Airshow China 2022 CASC unveils FH 97A loyal wingman autonomous drone 2 FH-97 mock-up showcased during Airshow China 2021 (Picture source: CASC)

"Loyal wingman is a key hot topic in the field of UAVs in recent years, and is widely considered to be an important part of the future unmanned combat system," Deng Shuai, chief designer of the drone, told Liu Xuanzun, Cao Siqi and Fan Wei of Global Times at Airshow China 2022. FH-97 is a medium-range high-speed UAV that can carry out detection and research, identification and tracking, accurate positioning as well as intelligent attack on critical locations and facilities. The system can carry the smaller FH-901 drone to quickly and accurately attack enemy maneuvering targets and sensitive targets.

"The FH-97A is not only a sensor, but also an ammunition carrier, and also an intelligent assistant for pilots. It can extend a pilot's situational awareness and scope of an attack, and by using FH-97As in large numbers, each loyal wingman drone can become an intelligent node in the air combat system, obtain local combat information, and filter and integrate to form a wider battlefield situation, assist pilots to make decisions, and liberate people from dangerous and highly tense combat environments, so that in addition to being traditional pilots, the pilots can become more of commanders of a flight formation." Deng Shuai, the chief designer of the drone, told the Global Times.

The model of the FH-97A also shows two distinct and exposed traditional engine exhaust nozzles at the rear, unlike the stealthy shrouded design seen on the original FH-97 mockup, Joseph Trevithick writes. Deng Shuai, chief designer of the drone, indeed pointed out that the FH-97A has changed compared with the FH-97 in terms of the electro-optical payload and the air intake method: "The electro-optical payload of the FH-97 is under the fuselage, while the electro-optical payload of the FH-97A is above the fuselage. The FH-97 uses an intake on the back, while the FH-97A has side intakes. In addition, there are some differences in the weapons bay, as the new FH-97A's weapons bay is designed to enhance the maneuverability and speed in air combat while the FH-97's weapons bay is designed for land attack."

Beyond the core design's differences compared to the FH-97, Joseph Trevithick comments, the FH-97A's new overall planform, especially the nose section with its downward slant, is extremely reminiscent of Boeing Australia's MQ-28. An infrared search and track (IRST) sensor system was also first spotted on top of the nose of one of the Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) MQ-28s earlier this year. In addition, the FH-97A has a similarly gold-colored transparency on either side of the forward fuselage, as well, which would point to dedicated side-looking sensor systems.

The weapon ventral bay of the FH-97A containing a pop-down launcher under the fuselage can carry eight air-to-air missiles. The drone can also carry pods with different functions, including radar jamming, reconnaissance and communications jamming, as well as fuel tanks, extra missiles and precision-guided weapons. Thanks to the embedded intelligent skin antenna, the loyal wingman drone is also difficult to jam.

If the FH-97A is indeed more focused on air-to-air combat, Joseph Trevithick writes, one potential option might be that the pop-down ammo store represents miniaturized interceptors intended to knock down incoming missiles, or even hostile aircraft. The U.S. Air Force, among others, has been notably interested in munitions in this category for aircraft self-defense. In 2017, Northrop Grumman was also awarded a patent for a broadly similar-looking anti-missile system for stealthy aircraft. This is just one possibility and if the launcher is intended to be multi-purpose, it could launch various types of other payloads, too, including non-kinetic systems designed to act as decoys or stand-in electronic warfare jammers or even small drones.

The FH-97A is equipped with two engines. In addition to conventional wheeled take-off and landing on runways, this type of UAV can also use a rocket booster for complete take-off and landing under special conditions, and carry out arrested recovery. Deng said that the FH-97A could be reconfigured and become operable on vessels. Although the FH-97A has excellent endurance and can accompany manned aircraft throughout the entire flight, aerial refueling is still a future development direction for this type of UAV.

In addition, as a loyal wingman that can accompany different aircraft, the FH-97A also needs to establish contact with different models of fighters. Its airborne data link system has a multi-band format, which is compatible with various aircraft in active service and can realize cross-platform interconnection.