Stealth vs maneuverability: why the Chinese Sharp Sword drone is better than Russian counterparts

Stealth vs maneuverability: why the Chinese Sharp Sword drone is better than Russian counterparts

22 January , 16:30
The Chinese military designers did not, unlike the Russian ones, seek the versatility of their drones, since maneuverability, unlike stealth, is not needed for reconnaissance and pinpoint bomb strikes.

Victor Kuzovkov

In one of the popular Chinese social networks, a photo of a heavy reconnaissance-attack stealth drone GJ-11 "Sharp Sword" appeared. Moreover, the UAV was filmed in flight, which was not previously observed. This drone was developed by the Chinese corporation "Hongdu Aviation Industry Group" and this year entered service with the People's Liberation Army of China (PLA).

Previously, photos of this drone have already flashed in the media, in particular, it was shown at one of the parades on a towed platform, but then it could well have been a life-size model. Now it has become obvious that the task of creating a full-fledged strike stealth drone by Chinese designers has generally been solved. This is probably the first drone of this type to be put into service outside the United States, which once again confirms the great success of the PRC on the path of creating unmanned aircraft. After the creation of two stealth fighters and the placement of one of them, namely the Chengdu J-20, on combat duty, this is the second time that Beijing is ahead of everyone except Washington in the creation of stealth vehicles.

The characteristics of the GJ-11 "Sharp Sword" are approximately the following: subsonic speed, about a thousand kilometers per hour, range up to four thousand kilometers (probably referring to the ferry range), maximum take-off weight up to 10 tons, with about two tons of useful load, namely bombs. The drone is made according to the "flying wing" scheme, equipped with Chinese engines with a flat nozzle, has a wingspan of 14 meters, and the practical ceiling of the machine is 12,500 meters - not very much by modern standards, but for "invisibility", created mainly for flights on small and ultra-low altitudes are enough.

In general terms, we can state that the Chinese have managed to create something that is only being tested by Russian designers. True, the comparison of the characteristics of the "Chinese" with the Russian UAV S-70 "Okhotnik" is still not in favor of the first - ours somehow looks more impressive. And it's not just about the size, which in this case is just not critical ...

First of all, we note that the Russian counterpart is much larger. The maximum take-off weight of the S-70 Okhotnik UAV, according to various estimates, ranges from 20 to 25 tons. According to this indicator, it is quite comparable with a modern light jet fighter, and not with its Chinese counterpart. But the main differences are not even that. The Hunter is a much more versatile machine, and this is manifested in literally everything, from the range of tasks to be solved to control methods.

Presumably, the S-70 "Okhotnik" is immediately made on the basis of fairly advanced artificial intelligence systems, while the Chinese model, at least for now, requires direct operator control at all stages of the flight. In practice, this means that the Russian attack UAV will be able to perform tasks deep in the enemy's defense without revealing itself by radio exchange with control centers. In addition, the AI reaction time to a suddenly changed situation, for example, to detection by the enemy, will be counted in hundredths of a second, while in the case of an operator and external control, taking into account communication delays, it can be about several seconds. And in modern combat conditions, this may be enough to defeat a UAV.

In addition, the artificial intelligence system makes it possible to operate the UAV in conjunction with a controlled aircraft, in our case, the Su-57. There is more than enough information about the possibility of such a combat use; it is officially, although without unnecessary details, confirmed by sources in the Russian Ministry of Defense. This means that the Russian UAV under development can get another great advantage.

In general, the joint work of a robot and a controlled aircraft is, in principle, impossible without the use of artificial intelligence. The essence of this work is that the drone must independently analyze the incoming information, calculate threats for itself and its "older brother", make and implement decisions on which both its own well-being and, possibly, the life of a pilot in a manned vehicle depend. If he cannot do this, then the Su-57 pilot will bear a huge additional burden of controlling the drone, which is physically impossible to bear. That is, in order to carry out joint flights, it would be mandatory to put a co-pilot in a fighter, whose task would be exclusively to control the drone. And even in this case, there are big doubts about the functionality of such a control scheme and combat use.

In addition, such a scheme of interaction, without AI, presupposes active radio exchange between the fighter and the UAV, especially at the time of an air collision with enemy aircraft. This means that the bundle is potentially vulnerable to electronic warfare systems, which significantly worsens the survival of such a pair in aerial combat.

It should also be noted that the S-70 can be used not only for strikes against ground targets, but also for attacks on air targets of various types. This dramatically increases its value as a "wingman" and implies a higher survivability of manned aircraft in collisions. In order to achieve such versatility, it was necessary to solve several complex problems at once, in particular, not only to create a control system with elements of artificial intelligence, but also to teach the drone to use air-to-air missiles, including (and even above all) from the internal compartments, which was practically never used before.

Strictly speaking, despite the external resemblance, the Chinese GJ-11 "Sharp Sword" is more reminiscent of some European experimental drones, for example, the English UAV "Taranis" or the "pan-European" "nEUROn", and not the Russian C-70. There, indeed, the weight and size characteristics, and rather rigid specialization, and a narrow range of weapons used are the same. Russia, as usual, went its own way, having received almost a multipurpose unmanned stealth aircraft designed to solve a wide range of tasks. It's another matter how successful this decision will turn out to be, and whether our foreign competitors will not turn out to be right when they choose to create a cheaper UAV, a real "consumable" for warfare, adapted only for reconnaissance and inflicting pinpoint bombing strikes.

It should also be noted that the GJ-11 "Sharp Sword" was created using the "flat nozzle" technology, while in our case the prototype of the C-70 "Okhotnik" (as well as the prototypes of the Su-57) is flying with an engine equipped with conventional, round nozzle. This does not seem particularly important, but nevertheless, let us focus on this ...

This is because both flat and round nozzles have several advantages. In particular, the flat nozzle is less visible on radar screens, and also helps to reduce the heat footprint of the aircraft. Within the framework of the concept of "invisibility", the use of a flat nozzle seems to be the most logical - if we are already investing enormous forces and resources in invisibility technologies, then we must go all the way and do it wherever possible. A regular, circular nozzle is best used when you want the best performance from your machine. That, in general, also has the right to life, but within the framework of the existing trend in the development of combat aviation, the need for high maneuverability of aircraft is generally questioned. It is not for nothing that our enemies say - "Your" dryers "can spin in the air as you like, they still won't dodge the rocket." Alas, there is a certain grain of truth in this, which means that the value of the right to shoot first, and hence the value of invisibility, increases many times in modern air combat.

It can also be noted that a flat nozzle, as a rule, somewhat reduces the total thrust of the engines, and this is a significant disadvantage. At the same time, engines with a conventional, round nozzle have long been well mastered by the industry, which has a positive effect on their price. We add to this the fact that the thrust vector of a flat nozzle can only change in the vertical plane, which is not critical, but it can still affect some indicators of maneuverability. In general, the debate over which nozzles to use is still going on, at least in Russia, where designers and the military traditionally pay great attention to super-maneuverability as an important element of air combat.

It is likely that our promising machines are still equipped with circular nozzle motors is in many ways an echo of this controversy. In addition, we cannot exclude some lobbying interests of the industry, which is already quite difficult to get new aircraft engines, the characteristics of which would correspond to the best Western models. Add to this a certain conceptual dispute about which is better - stealth or maneuverability - and we get what we have, namely, almost deliberate disregard on the part of our designers for a flat nozzle.

The Chinese, in spite of the existing big problems in aircraft engine building, made their choice in favor of stealth. And in their case, we can almost certainly say that this choice is correct - their designers and the military did not bother with versatility, and maneuverability, in principle, is not needed for reconnaissance and pinpoint bomb attacks.

It should also be remembered that artificial intelligence technologies are developing in the PRC almost faster than in Russia. This means that soon we can expect that the GJ-11 "Sharp Sword" will be taught to fly both independently and in conjunction with fighters. That is, the Chinese will most likely overcome the quality gap from our S-70 in a decade, no more. The question of the use of air-to-air missiles by the Chinese unmanned aerial vehicle remains open, since for this it will hardly be enough to simply change the UAV software. But nevertheless, the appearance of modernized models of the GJ-11, capable of solving this problem, can also be assumed with a high degree of probability.

At the same time, the Chinese UAV will remain more secretive than the Russian one if we continue to sit on two chairs, combining, with damage to ourselves, stealth and maneuverability in our vehicles. And most likely it will be much more widespread.

And this is already a serious reason to think...

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