China’s homemade FH-95 electronic warfare and armed reconnaissance drone recently passed a milestone performance test, providing a new dimension to the nation’s electronic warfare capabilities, according to the Communist Party-run Global Times.
Citing the Beijing-based magazine Unmanned Vehicles, the Global Times report said that the FH-95, manufactured by Aerospace Times Feihong Technology Corporation (ATFTC) under the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, last month completed a successful test at an undisclosed air base.
The Global Times has released limited information on the FH-95’s specifications, noting only that it has a one-ton takeoff weight, can carry a 250-kilogram payload and has a 24-hour flight endurance.
While the Global Times notes that aside from the usual missions such as armed reconnaissance, border patrol and maritime surveillance, the FH-95 can work as part of a more extensive drone formation, providing electronic warfare support to manned and unmanned aircraft, notes the Janes defense publication.
Chen Jianguo, the ATFTC’s general manager and researcher, mentioned in the Global Times report that drones capable of electronic warfare, surveillance and early warning will become indispensable in combat.
He said they can perform remote detection outside defended areas, act as tactical feints, and perform saturation attacks alongside manned aircraft. In addition, Global Times cites an unnamed Beijing-based military expert who says that electronic warfare drones will bring a new dimension to how drones are deployed in warfare, noting that most current drones are designed for reconnaissance and attack roles.
Global Times also learned from ATFTC that the FH-95 could provide electromagnetic interference to cover an attack by FH-97 stealth drones to penetrate and destroy air defenses, followed by an attack using more traditional FH-92A attack drones.
Electronic warfare drones may devastate high-tech forces reliant on networks and unmanned combat systems. In a 2022 Sandboxx article, defense analyst Michael Peck notes the possibility of electronic warfare drone swarms moving in to disrupt wireless communications and radar. Peck also noted that the US might be vulnerable to such attacks.
America’s latest doctrine, the Joint All-Domain Command, and Control (JADC2) project, relies extensively on sensor-to-shooter links between drones and long-range missiles. As a result, China’s electronic warfare drones could potentially impair US combat operations to a significant degree.
Although the Global Times report mentioned only limited roles for the FH-95, the drone can potentially perform a broader range of operations. A 2009 study from the US Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) elaborates on the possible ways militaries can integrate electronic warfare with unmanned aerial systems such as the FH-95.
Electronic warfare drones such as the FH-97 can bring jamming systems closer to their targets to maximize their effect while using less power. They can also be expended as decoys to reveal the locations of enemy defenses before an actual attack and equipped with directed energy weapons such as high-powered microwaves to burn out enemy electronics or to suppress enemy air defense (SEAD) missions with anti-radiation missiles.
Advances in radar warning receiver electronics can make the FH-95 an early warning platform, as these components become smaller and may be mounted on lighter platforms. In that connection, they could also be employed as signals intelligence (SIGINT) assets. Finally, they can also be used as an alternative to satellite navigation systems, should the latter be jammed, spoofed or outright destroyed.
However, the deployment of electronic warfare drones brings its own array of challenges. As national security analyst Zachary Kallenborn notes in a 2022 article for the Modern War Institute, a heavily disrupted electromagnetic environment may spur the development of autonomous weapons systems.
Yet, autonomy itself brings risks, as it may increase cyber and space warfare vulnerabilities, as such drones may require satellite guidance to function. Moreover, increased autonomy may mean more vulnerability to manipulation, as shown by Iranian forces’ 2011 capture of a US RQ-170 Sentinel drone.
As that incident underscored, drones may be targets of cyber-attacks, causing them to crash, provide sensitive information to unauthorized users or even attack friendly targets.
Kallenborn also notes that the current dependence of drones on satellite guidance can mean that the destruction of such systems may render drone capabilities entirely unusable. This situation is a plausible prospect, as principal military powers such as the US, Russia and China actively develop anti-satellite warfare capabilities.
He also notes that drones can be a psychological weapon as well as a potential weapon of mass destruction. In a 2020 article for the Modern War Institute, Kallenborn notes that autonomous drones can be proliferated into the hands of rogue actors, with just a software upgrade needed to make them fully autonomous.
Also, commercial off-the-shelf technology is readily available to make them into makeshift electronic warfare drones. If so, rogue states and actors can incorporate electronic warfare drones in increasingly sophisticated drone attacks against military or civilian targets.
Moreover, a 2021 article in the Defense Procurement International Magazine notes that China is the world’s largest exporter of combat drones. Less restrictive export policies, flexible payment terms, strong political support from the Chinese Communist Party and decades of reverse engineering foreign technology catapulted China into the top spot for drone exports.
However, the article also notes that China has exported its combat drones to states with dubious human rights records or poor records of preventing weapons proliferation.