At least, that’s what the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China, if not the Chinese government itself, apparently wants people to believe.
It’s possible that the Dark Sword drone, the first official photo of which began circulating online in early June, is little more than a mock-up. In that case, the drone can’t even fly, much less fight.
But that doesn’t mean AVIC won’t eventually turn the mock-up—if that’s what it is—into a functional, front-line weapon that could weigh on the balance of power in the Pacific region. The Chinese military-industrial complex has proved it can develop and produce high-end weaponry, including drones, faster than Western officials once anticipated.
The Dark Sword’s first public appearance in its full-size form comes in an undated group photo of 18 men and one woman wearing white shirts and dark pants and badges on lanyards. They’re standing in front of the roughly 30-foot-long drone in a hangar or showroom of some sort.
“Looks like a mock-up for a supersonic stealth drone, but an official AVIC mock-up,” Jeffrey Lin, independent expert on Chinese military technology, told The Daily Beast via email. “Without knowing when this photo was taken, it’d be hard to figure out how far it’s along.”
AVIC did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Andreas Rupprecht, the author of several reference books on Chinese warplanes, tweeted that he found the photo “most surprising.” He tweeted that he believed AVIC had suspended development of the Dark Sword in favor of a less sophisticated drone model.
The Dark Sword seems to boast several technologically advanced features, including a special engine air inlet that can reduce detectability on radar while still enabling supersonic flight.
The drone, or drone mock-up, also sports a silvery color scheme, possibly indicating the addition of a radar-absorbing coating. The U.S. F-22 and F-35 and China’s own J-20 manned stealth fighter all feature similar coatings.
While the United States and European countries are developing stealthy drones and supersonic drones, very few designs combine these attributes.
Rupprecht pointed out that small-scale models of the Dark Sword have appeared an industry events for years now. But the full-size model—or actual, flyable aircraft—seems to be new. “The questions are now: why was it unveiled now?” Rupprecht tweeted. “Is it a recent image or only now posted?”
The obvious implication is that AVIC showed off the Dark Sword because development of the drone is at an advanced state and it’s in AVIC’s interest to market the aircraft in China and abroad. Once flight testing begins, hiding a new airplane from the public can become difficult.
Even if the Dark Sword is unflyable at present, it might not be long before AVIC makes the drone airworthy. After decades of rapid expansion, aided by systematic theft of American intellectual property, the Chinese defense industry is capable of quickly designing and producing sophisticated weaponry.
The J-20, China’s first manned stealth fighter, first flew in early 2011. Seven years later, the Chinese air force declared the the first squadron of the radar-evading jets to be war-ready. By contrast, the first demonstrator for the U.S. F-22 took off on its debut flight in 1990. It took builder Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Air Force 15 years to complete the F-22’s development and equip a frontline squadron.
Shortly after the J-20’s inaugural sortie in 2011, Adm. Jack Dorsett, then the U.S. Navy top intelligence official, admitted that the Pentagon had been “pretty consistent in underestimating” the speed of Chinese military developments.
It’s hard to predict on the basis of one undated photo what AVIC’s plans are for the Dark Sword. It might fly soon. It might never fly. The Chinese military could buy hundreds of the speedy, radar-evading drones. It could buy none.
But that’s missing the point. The world’s leading air forces are all trying to acquire advanced unmanned aircraft that are fast, stealthy, or both. The Chinese air force “will likely seek to develop new [drone] models with stealth characteristics in order to help penetrate enemy air defenses,” the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute warned in a 2017 study.
The Dark Sword could be that drone. If it’s not, some other drone type will probably take its place.