Naval Mothership For China’s UAVs Looks Like To Be In Operation

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, appears to have put an unusual catamaran drone mini-carrier into service as part of an experimental naval training force. The War Zone was the first to report in detail on this ship, which was launched in May 2021 and looks to be intended ostensibly to simulate enemy drone swarms, as well as other threats, such as high-volume anti-ship missile strikes and distrubuted electronic warfare attacks, during training exercises.

Footage of what appears to be the training ship was included in a short segment broadcast on Chinese state television station CCTV-7 today about what is described as a “Navy Experimental Training Base,” according to a machine translation. CCTV-7 is focused on news about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Overall, the segment shows various land-based and maritime training and/or test and evaluation activities involving shore-based systems, surface warships, and submarines, with a clear emphasis on naval countermeasures and other shipboard self-defense systems. 

The b-roll running in the background during the CCTV-7 segment includes two brief and distinct clips showing what appears to be the forward flight deck of the catamaran drone carrier. Though a full view of the ship is never given, a number of very unique features are visible that are similar if not identical to those seen on a model of the vessel that the state-run China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, or CASIC, had on display at the 2021 Zhuhai Airshow. These include two large anchor line reels at the bow and five landing pads for drone helicopters. 

A model of the catamaran drone mini-carrier training vessel seen at the 2021 Zhuhai Airshow, showing various features on its bow end that are similar to those seen on the ship in the CCTV-7 segment today. Chinese internet A picture of the ship at the time of its launch in May 2021. Chinese internet 

Interestingly, one of the two clips that CCTV-7 included in its segment today shows the helipads marked with circles with the Latin letter “H” in the center, while the pads in the other look to be unmarked. This would seem to indicate that the two videos were taken at significantly different times. This may also raise a question about whether the PLAN has more than one of these ships, though this seems less likely. There have been no indications one way or another that a second one was launched after the first was last year.

In addition, a number of the uncrewed helicopters seen in both clips shown today on CCTV-7 are of a distinctive tandem-rotor design, a relatively uncommon configuration for uncrewed rotorcraft, which was showcased along with CASIC’s model of the catamaran training vessel at Zhuhai last year. These are readily identifiable by a bar underneath one end of the fuselage with what has looked to be a radiofrequency signal emitter of some kind installed on either end. Their portly fuselages would provide space for additional mission systems.

A model of a tandem-rotor drone seen on display at the Zhuhai Airshow in 2021. The model of the catamaran drone carrier, a portion of which is seen here on the left, was depicted carrying five of these uncrewed helicopters.

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