A Chinese drone manufacturer claimed this week to have developed a prototype unmanned stealth aircraft capable of rivaling the U.S. Air Force’s B-21 Raider.
Drone creator Zhongtian Feilong released a statement saying that its new Feilon-2 (Flying Dragon-2) prototype drone could match Northrop Grumman’s B-21 prototype in speed, attack range, payload and stealth capabilities, according to the South China Morning Post, saying that the U.S. had “already fallen behind” in the race for next-generation military-aerospace technologies.
Though seemingly a terrifying prospect, there is a reason Americans should not fear the news.
The announcement was almost certainly hyperbole intended to be used as propaganda by non-state actors sympathetic to China’s ongoing struggle with the United States for global hegemon status.
The claim was called ultimately called “preposterous” by Popular Mechanics, which noted that the B-21’s actual speed, payload, range and stealth capabilities are not yet publicly known.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to give such announcements consideration with regard to the current state of America’s defense readiness and military posture, to say nothing of the tightening gap between America and China’s military capabilities in the Pacific.
If the claim that the Feilong-2 can be produced more cheaply and last longer than the B-21 is true, such benefits could help to successfully augment China’s current drone development efforts in countering U.S. presence in the South China Sea and the Pacific more generally.
Further, utilizing an unmanned aircraft for such a critical bombing unit could free up more Chinese military personnel to work against America in other capacities, while enabling more aggressive tactics that might otherwise be impossible without risking human life.
But the real power of the Feilong-2 at this moment is its marketing value.
Regardless of the technological realities of the Feilong-2, China is certainly using it to promote soft power abroad as the nation attempts to sway, bribe and bully middle and lesser states to stay out of a likely conflict with Taiwan, and to accept the image of an ascendant China as a reality.
Indeed, something of a similar struggle to control the narrative about the future of Taiwan has already erupted between American and Chinese news outlets, with the South China Morning Post reporting that Chinese analysts believe Japan will remain neutral in the conflict and Reuters reporting that Japan will ally with America.
Both reports, of course, serve as potential arguments to sway international readership one way or the other, and thus help to direct the course of conflict regarding Taiwan before it ever begins.
This struggle for soft power follows repeated incursions into Taiwanese airspace by the Chinese military, as well as expert testimony that a war over Taiwan’s independence is likely to occur within the next six years.
Given this state of affairs, any inch of territory or second of media spin that China can conquer will, to various degrees, support its efforts to topple America’s ability to globally project power.
News of the Feilong-2 prototype also followed recently-taken satellite images that confirmed China is nearing completion of its latest aircraft carrier, which it hopes will be capable of rivaling the U.S.’ Ford-class carrier.
In all, the repetition of similar military announcements and claims of technological superiority should be expected in the coming months and, potentially, years.
That repetition is the sound of two nations struggling for global preeminence technologically, yes, but also culturally and diplomatically.
Whatever the true capabilities of the Feilong-2 are, that continued buzzing of global techno-political maneuvering is reason enough that all should move forward with some caution. There is no telling what spark could ignite a conflagration.
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