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China Showcases Stealthier Sharp Sword Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle Configuration


The rear of the design on display during a parade to mark the 70th founding of Communist China is completely different from an earlier prototype.


China revealed a new iteration of its Sharp Sword stealthy flying wing unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) at a parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Communist state. The drone, which the Chinese have designated GJ-11, most notably now features a completely redesigned rear aspect with a stealthier exhaust compared to an earlier prototype that could significantly improve the unmanned aircraft's radar-evading capabilities.


The GJ-11 displayed now has a concealed exhaust and generally more streamlined rear aspect. The intake may also have been revised. It is impossible to tell from the available pictures and video from the parade whether either the intake or exhaust systems feature any sort of ducting that could further conceal the engine, especially its fan face, and further improve the drone's stealth qualities. It seems safe to assume that incorporating these design features would at least be the eventual goal.


The GJ-11 Sharp Sword on parade on Oct. 1, 2019.


A side view of the Sharp Sword prototype in 2013 with its completely exposed engine exhaust.


There has also been much speculation since then about what the Sharp Sword's specific roles and missions might be over the years, with earlier reports indicating that it might be able to carry two 2,000-pound class munitions in internal bays and use a satellite data-lix to conduct long-range missions well beyond the Chinese mainland. More recently, there had been unconfirmed, but not unreasonable reports that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) might be interested in employing a version of Sharp Sword from its aircraft carriers in an unarmed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity, a concept The War Zone recently explored in detail.


Narrators on China Central Television who were giving a play-by-play of the parade and the weapons and other military hardware on display reportedly said that the GJ-11's primary mission would be conducting deep penetrating strikes on critical targets. The "GJ" in the designation also stands for "gonji," or "attack" in English, which would seem to further confirm that this unmanned aircraft is a strike-focused UCAV first and foremost.


At the 2018 Zhuhai Air Show, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) revealed its own UCAV design, the CH-7, which has very broad similarities to the Northrop Grumman X-47B. CASC had a mockup on display that still had a number of features, including panel lines, that one would expect to see on a real aircraft. There are even higher fidelity mockups out there, such as the one for the X-47B itself.


A mockup of the CASC CH-7 UCAV at the 2018 Zhuhai airshow.

2018年珠海航展上的中国航天科技集团公司彩虹-7 无人隐身战斗机模型。

Some observers have also suggested that a number of facets in the trailing edge of the wing on the Sharp Sword in the parade may be part of a non-traditional control arrangement that uses blasts of air rather than conventional control surfaces. It is possible that China might be interested in this sort of technology, in general, but actual examples of work on "morphing wings" and "fluidic thrust vectoring" elsewhere in the world show that these developments are very much in their infancy.


Regardless, official pictures from the parade show the clear outlines of traditional control surfaces. As such, the faceted areas indicate where the control surfaces would come close to joining or are otherwise simply a feature of the design.


A look at the rear of the GJ-11 showing the revised exhaust and the faceted areas in the trailing edges of the wings.


Another rear shot of the GJ-11 Sharp Sword on parade, making it clear that the design has traditional control surfaces.


When it comes to the GJ-11's rear aspect, it is worth remembering that engine exhausts are among the most notoriously complicated elements of developing any stealth aircraft, manned or unmanned. The Russians have been facing a similar issue with their S-70 Okhotnik-B, or Hunter-B, UCAV, another flying wing design with clear stealth aspirations. As with the original Sharp Sword prototype, the first flying example of the S-70 also has an exposed engine exhaust. However, in August 2019 at the biennial MAKS airshow outside of Moscow, the manufacturer, Sukhoi, displayed a model of a future iteration with a greatly revised, stealthier rear aspect.


If nothing else, the general layout of the Sharp Sword UCAV in the anniversary parade is the latest indication of how invested the Chinese are in the development of stealthy unmanned aircraft, as well as drones in general. Sharp Sword is just one of the numerous flying wing style unmanned designs that Chinese aviation firms have been producing in recent years. These are developments that The War Zone has been following very closely.


Another view of the GJ-11 Sharp Sword on parade.


Whatever the actual state of the GJ-11's development is or isn't, China is definitely eager, and publicly so, to push further ahead in developing a real stealth UCAV capability.