Satellite images indicate China’s possible attempt of converting the J-6 fighters into drones

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Vaibhav Agrawal
Vaibhav Agrawal
Vaibhav Agrawal is the founder editor of Bhraman (a Digital Travelogue). As an independent journalist, he is passionate for investigating and reporting on complex subjects. He has an extensive background in both print and digital media, with a focus on Travel and Defence reporting. *Views are personal

Beijing seems to have converted its 1950s J-6 fighter jets into Unmanned Aerial Vehicles as indicated by satellite images which showed a significant number of these fighter jets stalled at China’s east coast bases which are situated near Taiwan. During a ceremony that marked the commencement of the second phase of a training brigade’s cycle, these images were taken and made public by the Eastern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army. 

Although several marks on the aircraft like its serial numbers and other markers were blurred by the PLAAF to prevent identification of these crafts while they were also left unpainted, so the particular training brigade photographed has not been identified, however, three hardpoints for external storage on each wing were evidently visible in the images.

The J-6

The aircraft was modelled after the Soviet Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-19 interceptor. In multiple satellite images of China’s strategic airbases which are situated along with its coastal provinces opposite China, the piloted version of this aircraft which was formally decommissioned from the PLAAF inventory in 2010, were seen. 

J-6 fighter drone
PLA’s Eastern Theater Command recently released photos showing the PLAAF’s J-6 unmanned aircraft. Planet Imagery

Back in 2013, various reports suggested that the vintage J-6 fighter had been converted into an Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicle by the PLAAF. To facilitate aid in carrying out Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) tactics, the conversion was particularly designed to leverage the aircraft as a decoy. While another reason that stands behind the decommissioning of the J-6 was to make it serve as a rudimentary combat drone. 50 J-6 fighters were seen in the satellite images from 15 September 2021.

Different intentions

As per images taken over several years, the J-6s have been seen in various parts of the base while they are not operationally active but simply have been stored up at the base.

Taiwan falls under the reach of the J-6 as both the Liancheng and Xing Ning airbases are situated around 442 km away from Taiwan. On the other hand, the conversion of the J-6 fighter jet into a combat drone has not yet been publicly acknowledged by Beijing. 

Similar to the USA

A similar project was undertaken by the U.S. Air Force of converting its F-16 variants into operational drones to test new weapons and air assets, particularly the F-35 Joint Strike Fight. 

According to Aviation Today, while the aircraft is redesignated with an aviation code for unmanned aircraft, the unnecessary components are ripped out in this process of conversion and are replaced with 3,000 wires, a flight control computer, and a new autopilot, making them into a drone.

As per a report by Popular Mechanics, the QF-16 aircraft is capable of banking, turning and kicking out flares while it is also considered to be an excellent training tool as it simulates real-world air combat. The aircraft is believed to be capable of being used repeatedly as it can land after an exercise if not shot down and can train the United States and its allies to deal with 21st-century aerial threats.


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