Meet China’s new-old killer drones

When you think of drones that will likely be used in a conflict between two advanced militaries, you usually imagine brand new, unmanned stealth jets. But China appears to be taking a different approach. It’s converting its ancient Shenyang J-6 fighters — copies of the Soviet Union’s 1950s-vintage MiG-19, the world’s first operational supersonic fighter ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

When you think of drones that will likely be used in a conflict between two advanced militaries, you usually imagine brand new, unmanned stealth jets. But China appears to be taking a different approach. It's converting its ancient Shenyang J-6 fighters -- copies of the Soviet Union's 1950s-vintage MiG-19, the world's first operational supersonic fighter -- into unmanned jets. (Yes, China is also develping brand new drones.)

Converting old fighters into remote controlled jets is nothing new. The U.S. has used retired fighters as unmanned target practice drones for decades. However, China plans to use the old fighters as ground attack jets. We've been hearing about the unmanned J-6 project for a long time now. What's caught people's attention is that China has apparently massed dozens of the jets at airbases in Fujilan province, close to, you guessed it, Taiwan.

While the fighters may not be the most advanced drones in the world and no knows how accurate their weapons would be, they would pose one more challenge to Taiwanese air defense in the event of war with the mainland. Imagine waves of the unmanned jets tying up air defenses while more advanced jets and missiles attack.  As this article from 2010 points out, the J-6 drones could be used in conjunction with the Israeli-made Harpy UAVs that are specifically designed to defeat ground-based radars to "punch holes" in the island's air defenses.

When you think of drones that will likely be used in a conflict between two advanced militaries, you usually imagine brand new, unmanned stealth jets. But China appears to be taking a different approach. It’s converting its ancient Shenyang J-6 fighters — copies of the Soviet Union’s 1950s-vintage MiG-19, the world’s first operational supersonic fighter — into unmanned jets. (Yes, China is also develping brand new drones.)

Converting old fighters into remote controlled jets is nothing new. The U.S. has used retired fighters as unmanned target practice drones for decades. However, China plans to use the old fighters as ground attack jets. We’ve been hearing about the unmanned J-6 project for a long time now. What’s caught people’s attention is that China has apparently massed dozens of the jets at airbases in Fujilan province, close to, you guessed it, Taiwan.

While the fighters may not be the most advanced drones in the world and no knows how accurate their weapons would be, they would pose one more challenge to Taiwanese air defense in the event of war with the mainland. Imagine waves of the unmanned jets tying up air defenses while more advanced jets and missiles attack.  As this article from 2010 points out, the J-6 drones could be used in conjunction with the Israeli-made Harpy UAVs that are specifically designed to defeat ground-based radars to "punch holes" in the island’s air defenses.

Converting manned fighters into drones isn’t hard. The U.S. even converted B-17s Flying Fortress into unmanned plane to collected radiation samples from the air over the nuclear blasts during the Operations Crossroads nuclear bomb tests in 1946. In the case of the Air Force’s QF-4 Phantom drones, the jets’ guns are removed and black boxes connected to the flight control systems are installed in the vacant gun compartments — allowing ground operators to control the planes. Want to learn how the U.S. converts its old fighters into drones? Click here.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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