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 reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.