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Home Air Power UAV UCAV



The PLAAF has been converting some of its deactivated fighters including the J-5 and J-7I (and possibly J-6 too) into remotely-controlled full-scale target drones. Now the PLAAF is exploring new mission ideas for these drones including ground attack and suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD). A recent Chinese magazine revealed that retired J-5 fighters being tested as an unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) for ground attack role at the PLAAF Weapon Test Base located in the northwest Gobi Desert.

Prompted by the combat successes and the remarkable performance of the U.S. cruise missile in recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the PLA has also been actively pursuing the cruise missile capabilities. However, the conventional cruise missile also has its own limitations including insufficient warhead to penetrate ‘hardened’ military targets such as bunkers and underground facilities. Another factor that may affect the use of the cruise missile in significant numbers is its expensive unit cost. A U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile costs over one million US dollars—sometimes more expensive than the target it hit.

The UCAV converted from retired fighter aircraft could potentially provide the PLA with a cost-effective alternative to the conventional cruise missile. The J-5 fighter, a Chinese copy of the Soviet MiG-17 (NATO codename: Fresco) first introduced in the 1950s, was produced in vast numbers (~1,000) before its production finally stopped in the mid-1980s. While most of these were sent to steel factories for recycling, some in relatively good conditions were preserved in caves. They provide plenty candidates for the UCAV conversation. With years of experience turning these deactivated J-5 fighters into target drones, the PLAAF should be able to turn them into UCAV without too much technical and financial difficulty.

The PLAAF has also converted some early variants J-7 (mainly J-7I model) for similar target drone role. The PLAAF currently deploys several hundred J-7 fighters in several variants. With many J-7B, J-7C and J-7D fighters reaching their service life in the coming decade, the PLAAF will have no difficulty in finding enough candidate for a similar conversion. The PLAAF also has a huge stock of mothballed J-6 (Chinese copy of the MiG-19 Farmer) fighters, which could also become a potential UCAV candidate if the PLAAF hasn’t done so.

As well as serving for the ground attack role, the fighter-converted UAV could also be used as decoys to confuse enemy air defence. A large number of UAV, even unarmed, would pose a serious threat on enemy’s radar screen and cause enemy air defence to be overloaded by these decoys. The enemy would also be tempted to turn on its back up radar when threatened by a large number of UAV decoys, exposing the location of these radar systems to the SEAD firepower delivered by piloted combat aircraft.

This page was last updated 28 May 2006

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