Chinese 'Grandpa' J-6 and J-7 jets are being transformed into UVACs

According to experts, it is believed that China is currently converting its old Soviet-era J-6 and J-7 jets into highly capable, and fast, drone aircraft.
Christopher McFadden
China are allegedly turning old jets into UCAVs.
China are allegedly turning old jets into UCAVs.


Several sources have speculated that China could convert its old jets from the Cold War into unmanned drones. Old fighters like the J-6 and J-7, which have been progressively mothballed since around 2018, are the prime candidates. In a move that kills two birds with one stone, these new robotic drones could, according to some experts, be able to, for example, overwhelm Taiwan's air defenses as a prelude to a Chinese attack. Perhaps even as "suicide" drones like the unmanned Kamikaze.

The J-6 and J-7 were China's versions of the Soviet MiG-19 and MiG-21, respectively, built between the 1950s and 1960s. Regarding the latter, despite having been developed in the middle of the Cold War, more than 2,400 J-7s were manufactured in 54 variants up until 2013. Pakistan and Iran still fly the F-7 export version.

According to an annual military assets and defense economics report from the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has nearly 300 J-7s. However, the third-generation J-7 is well past its prime, given that China is now getting new fourth- and fifth-generation fighters like the Russian-designed Su-30 and the J-16 and J-20 stealth fighters.

According to speculation, the J-7 could readily be transformed into an uncrewed combat air vehicle (UCAV) for that "new role." This is not the first instance of a jets-to-drones plan; in the past, it was thought that China might modify the J-6 for the same reason. Some experts have speculated that this conversion may already be well underway.

For example, observers pointed out that in 2021, during drills close to Taiwanese airspace, four J-7s joined a group of more modern J-16 fighters, which was unusual for an aging aircraft that even the Taiwanese dismissed as a "grandpa jet." Even though no proof has been made public, some people have questioned whether these J-7s have been modified to become drones.

As IE has previously reported, China isn't the only country doing this. The U.S. also wants to modify its old F-16s to do the same thing. This is a change in tact, as obsolete combat aircraft in the United States have traditionally been mothballed and dumped in "The Boneyard."

But why do such a thing? Well, firstly, converting old jets into new drones is pretty cost-effective. Doing so to newer jets would be pretty wasteful, economically speaking. Secondly, their performance should be superior to purpose-built drones. Strike drones with a specific purpose, such as the American MQ-9 Reaper or the Turkish TB2 Bayraktar, typically travel at a maximum speed of 130 to 300 miles per hour.

Manned fighters, even ancient ones, are built for quick, high-speed maneuvers, and a J-7 converted to a drone could travel at almost Mach 2. Combat jets can also carry weapons, such as bombs, air-to-air, air-to-ground, and anti-ship missiles.

Sound like a no-brainer, but there might be issues with the idea. Supersonic drones, in particular supersonic UCAVs, are still in their youth. For example, it is yet to be seen if they can pull off high-speed maneuvers when the "pilot" is not in the cockpit and has limited situational awareness. Additionally, combat jets typically require a lot of maintenance, particularly a trouble-prone design like the J-7, even though China may obtain plenty of spare parts by cannibalizing some of these UCAVs. For this reason, it is likely, at present, more economical to mass produce cheaper but less capable drone swarms.

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