Stealth fighters such as America's F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aren't technically invisible, but they are difficult to track on radar. Now the People's Republic of China is claiming its latest fixed-wing early warning aircraft (AEW) can track such aircraft.
The new Xian KJ-600 AEW, which recently conducted its maiden flight, could boost the People's Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) combat capability dramatically, reported the Eurasian Times. Previously, the PLAN had to rely on early warning helicopters to be the “eyes in the sky,” but these rotary aircraft could only carry smaller radars and had a limited speed. As such the helicopters could cover a radius of some 200 kilometers, while the fixed-wing AEW could cover 400 to 500 km much quicker.
The KJ-600, which was spotted near Xi’an earlier this month, could boost the comprehensive combat capability of the PLAN's new aircraft carriers—but whether it can operate with the two operational carriers is unknown as it may not have the ski-ramp launch capability. The twin-engine, high-wing cargo aircraft was developed as an early warning and control aircraft, and it reportedly uses two WJ-6C turboprop engines. Externally, the Chinese AEW has more than a passing resemblance to the Grumman E-2 Hawkeye, which remains a particularly important asset for the U.S. Navy because of its state-of-the-art radar system.
How state-of-the-art the Chinese radar is by comparison a matter of debate.
According to the report from the Eurasian Times, Beijing-based military expert Li Jie has suggested that the Chinese AEW could even detect the Lockheed Martin-built stealth fighters, while the news piece added that unconfirmed reports also said that Chinese radars are already capable of tracking the F-22.
While this fact hasn't been confirmed, it should be noted that stealth does not make an aircraft invisible even to radar, but rather the stealth technology is meant to delay detection and tracking. So it is possible that Chinese radar could track the F-22 Raptor. One important consideration with the F-22 is whether it is in a “ferry mission” and carrying extra fuel tanks—and in the case of the F-35 whether that aircraft is fully loaded with ordnance beyond what fits in its internal bomb bay.
This is far from the only claim that the Lockheed Martin stealth aircraft can be tracked. Iran has claimed that the Russian-made Rezonans-NE radar system was successfully used to spot and track U.S. F-35 fighters near its borders in January. The Rezonans-NE is a very high frequency (VHF) radar system that was designed to provide early warning against stealth aircraft and stealth cruise missiles as well as tracking and classification. The platform consists of up to four container housed antenna modules covering 90-degree in azimuth and operating independently.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.