The Complex

Does China have a stealth drone?

While Iran's got a somewhat less than "Epic" new propeller-powered UAV, China might be jumping on the stealth drone bandwagon sooner than you thought.

Extremely blurry photos posted on Internet forums over the past few months may show a Chinese stealth UAV, supposedly called the Lijan or Sharp Sword, along the lines of the U.S. Navy's X-47B.

Until now, we've seen photos of Chinese-made versions of propeller-driven drones that strongly resemble their American counterparts like the MQ-9 Reaper.

We've also seen photos of what may be a Chinese attempt at building a jet-powered spy drone similar to the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude strategic spy plane.

China has been developing what amount to mock-ups and model airplanes of stealth drones for years now. But it's unclear whether the plane shown above is an actual production jet, or just another mock up. (It might also be a fake, like this false image of a Chinese stealth jet that was circulating the Internet in 2011.)

While there's no way of verifying these grainy photos show a plane that could actually fly, Wired's Danger Room points out that the Pentagon's latest report on Chinese military capabilities says that the PLA is working to field "Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles [that] will increase China's ability to conduct long-range reconnaissance and strike operations."  The Pentagon usually describes stealth drones like the X-47B and others with very similar language.

Some online forums claim the aircraft is being built for use by the Chinese air force and navy and that it conducted ground tests in December 2012 and is being readied for a flight test later this year. The introduction of such a weapon would make sense given the PLA's desire to project greater power throughout the Western Pacific. A partial list of platforms to support this strategy includes the J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters, aircraft carriers, and strategic jet transport planes.

The U.S. Navy is hoping to have a fleet of carrier-launcher stealth jet drones that can perform long-range surveillance and strike missions by the early 2020s. The Navy sees these jets as key to its strategy of operating in the Pacific Ocean, particularly since China's development of weapons aims to keep U.S. ships far from its shores. The battle for unmanned aerial supremacy is definitely heating up.

National Security

Pic of the day: Turkey's plans to join the stealth fighter club

The stealth arms race is spreading. This image, snapped by a Flight Global reporter, Tolga Ozbek, at this year's International Defense Industry Fair in Istanbul, Turkey, this week, is apparently one of three proposed stealth fighter designs for the Turkish Air Force.

The new jets are being developed under a program called TFX aimed at producing a locally made fighter (with a little help from Swedish jet-maker, Saab) to replace Turkey's fleet of F-16s. The plan is that they will be operational sometime in the early 2020s and compliment Turkey's fleet of 116 U.S.-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

If TFX gets past the design phase, Turkey will join the United States, Russia, and China as the sole developers and operators of manned stealth fighter jets. Japan may be Turkey to the Punch with its  stealth fighter program called ATD-X. (South Korea is trying to develop its own stealth jet by the 2020s, but that effort has been put on hold.)

But a big question remains for nations developing manned stealth jets: Are they even needed given the advent of stealth drones like the U.S. Navy's X-47B, France's nEUROn and Britain's Taranis that can perform reconnaissance and ground attack missions -- and even land on aircraft carrier decks? One can only imagine what unmanned planes under development 10 years from now will be capable of doing.

Flight Global