The Complex

The U.S. Navy is arming drone boats

While the U.S. Air Force's drones have been firing all sorts of air-to-surface missiles and bombs for roughly a decade now, the Navy took a big step toward getting in on the action last Friday when it launched six Israeli-made Spike missiles from an unmanned 36-foot motorboat.

The Navy pretty much admits that the project -- called the unmanned surface vehicle precision engagement module (USV PEM) -- is aimed at defeating threats that are straight out of Iran's war plans for the Persian Gulf region.

"The USV PEM project was developed in response to recent world events which have increased the concern over swarms of small attack craft, as well as threat assessments outlined in recent studies conducted by the Naval Warfare Development Command," said NAVSEA Naval Special Warfare Assistant Program Manager Mark Moses in a press release. "The study punctuates the effectiveness of these swarm attacks against both military re-supply ships and naval vessels. Technology demonstrated in this project can provide a capability to combat terrorists who use small low-cost vehicles as weapons platforms."

It sounds like the Navy is looking at using small fleets of these vehicles to patrol the waters around its larger vessels to shield against swarms of suicide attackers using tiny speedboats laden with explosives -- a longstanding vulnerability to U.S. ships designed to pummel large ships, aircraft, and inland targets from far away using missiles, torpedoes, and large caliber cannons.

How does USV PEM work? During last week's test, a crew in a control station on shore piloted the boat -- similar to the way UAVs are controlled -- and used its night vision and infrared cameras to find and kill targets using the missiles or a remotely controlled .50 caliber heavy machine gun that's mounted on board.  It's easy to imagine that in the future, these control stations could install aboard ships being protected by the USV PEM technology.

"During the demonstration, they engaged stationary and moving targets out to 3.5km," or just over two miles, says the Navy's press release.

The project is part of a joint-U.S.-Israeli collaboration run out of the U.S. Navy's sea systems command's Special Warfare Program Office. The same shop is responsible for, among other things, fielding a number of tiny submarines used to listen for enemy submarines, deliver Navy SEALS, and other secret squirrel activities.

Until the Navy can field these killer roboboats, it will be mounting remotely-controlled chain guns aboard its ships and possibly lasers and Griffin missiles to defend against swarm attacks.

U.S. Navy

National Security

China's newest stealth fighter flies

If these pictures are real, then China has flown two new types of stealth fighters in less than two years. You're looking at what's supposedly the newly unveiled Shenyang Aircraft Corporation's J-31 jet flying in the skies over China on Oct. 31.

Chinese military blogs claim these extremely grainy photos (above and below) show the jet taking a 10-minute test flight accompanied by a J-11 fighter (a reverse engineered version of the Russian Sukhoi Su-27).

The first photos of the Shenyang J-31 emerged on the Chinese Internet forums last month.

It should be noted that unlike China's first stealth jet, the Chengdu J-20, we have not seen many photos of the J-31 sitting on the ground or conducting high speed taxi runs in the lead up to a flight test. The J-20 was revealed by amateur plane spotters allowed to sit just outside the airbase  where it was being tested, who took dozens, if not hundreds, of decent-quality photos of the jet. Only a few, mostly grainy, photos of the J-31 have emerged so far.

Some speculate that the J-31 could play the role of a light strike or carrier-based fighter to compliment the much larger J-20, which is speculated to be either a high-speed interceptor like the Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat or a stealthy tactical bomber designed to take out enemy bases and ships.

Earlier this year, the Internet was rife with speculation that China would unveil a new stealth fighter after photos appeared online showing a mystery jet covered in a tarp being transported on China's highways. The silhouette of the mystery plane roughly matched the contours of a model jet -- strongly resembling the U.S.-made F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) -- that Shenyang Aircraft Corporation displayed at an air show several years ago. That model appears to have evolved into the J-31.

While there is no proof that China's latest stealth fighter stole design specifications from American stealth fighter projects, the rear portions of aircraft blatantly copy the design of Lockheed Martin's F-22 while forward sections of the jet look an awful lot like an F-35. Keep in mind that the F-35 program suffered a large cyber intrusion several years ago where loads of data about the aircraft were stolen from the contractors working on it -- an incident that may have contributed to redesigns that have helped drive up costs and delay the fielding of the F-35. (In September, a senior JSF official revealed that the jet's computer-based maintenance system that will contain a host of critical data about the plane needed to be revised to prevent it from being hacked by spies.)

Still, as Killer Apps has pointed out before, having a stealthy shape does not mean the Chinese planes are truly stealth jets. Modern stealth aircraft feature new radar absorbent coatings, along with technology that masks their heat signatures and electronics that cannot be detected when in use. Don't forget, China has yet to master the development of high-performance jet engines, leaving its military largely reliant on Russian engines, for now. It remains to be seen just what capabilities China's new crop of stealth jets will feature.

Chinese Internet