Key Point: The Chinese AEW is not a miracle plane, but it's a big boost for the Chinese Navy's ability to extend its presence.
Traditionally a land power, Beijing has been compelled by events in the last two centuries to see the Pacific Ocean as its vulnerable flank. Now China has made no secret of its quest to rapidly develop a carrier aviation capabilities similar to those of the United States.
However, the fleet carriers and their air wings entail a host of supporting technologies that have had to be developed independently and then integrated into a cohesive whole. That process included (A) acquiring through unconventional means a mothballed ex-Soviet carrier from Ukraine in 2001 (B) spending a decade refitting it (C) acquiring a Soviet carrier-based fighter prototype and reverse engineering it, and (D) domestically building an improved version of that first acquired carrier from scratch.
One of the more specialized elements China has until recently had to go without is the E-2 Hawkeye, a twin-engine turboprop airplane mounting a huge twenty-four-foot diameter “pizza dish” radar dome rotating on top that was introduced in 1964. Airborne Early Warning & Control planes (also known as AWACS) are increasingly common in air forces across the globe, but most are jet-powered types derived from airliners or cargo planes that couldn’t possibly land on a carrier deck. The E-2, however, has a landing gear attachment for catapult-assisted takeoff and a tail hook for an arrested landing.
Each U.S. Navy carrier air wing has a squadron of four or five Hawkeyes. While AEW&C aircraft are also vital force multipliers for land-based fighters, they take on extra importance for carriers as a means of ensuring their very survival. The huge ships are crammed full of jet fuel and bombs, and it could only take a few unlucky missile or torpedo hits to start an explosive chain-reaction that could cripple or destroy one.
For this reason, a carrier task force wants to have visibility on approaching enemy aircraft and missiles from as far away as possible to buy it time to dispatch interceptors and ready defensive surface-to-air missile to thin their numbers. Nothing gives quite as good a peak literally over the horizon (and the curvature of the Earth) then a huge radar on top of an airplane. An E-2’s crew of five can also coordinate interceptions and even handoff targeting data using numerous datalinks and radios.
However, China’s two carriers, the Type 001 Liaoning and the improved Type 001A, both use a ski-jump deck from which an airplane like the E-2 could not takeoff. Instead, the Chinese carriers have three Z-18J Bat helicopters each with a retractable rotating AESA radar tucked in their rear holds to provide AEW support. However, helicopters have much less speed and endurance than airplanes, and are thus not an ideal solution.
Way back in 1969 China first tried strapping a radar dome on top a Russian-built B-29 bomber. Later in 2001, the United States prevented Israel from transferring AWACS technology to China—so Being went ahead and developed its own domestically. The PLA Air Force and Navy now operate at least a half-dozen different types of land-based AEW/C planes, but has yet to settle upon a standardized design like U.S.’s E-2 and E-3. The radars vary considerably from plane to plane—there are both mechanically rotating and fixed radar domes, “balance beam” radar booms on the KJ-200, triangular arrays etc—as do the base aircraft, from hulking Il-76s to the Shaanxi Y-8.
In July 2017, photos emerged of a tarp-covered Chinese plane identified as the KJ-600 that looked remarkably like the E-2 Hawkeye—particularly in regards to the tail section, the circular radar dome on top, folding wings for easier carrier stowage, and its four distinctive vertical stabilizers (tail fins). The basic airframe seemed to come from a Xi’an Y-7 transport plane, itself derived from the Russian An-24 light cargo plane. Earlier in 2014, photos of a demonstrator called the JZY-01 were published.
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Finally, on January 22, 2018 Chinese media announced the entry of a new twenty-five- to thirty-ton AEW&C plane into service. A South China Morning Post article particularly emphasized claims that the KJ-600’s Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar would enable it to detect stealth aircraft like the U.S. Navy’s F-35C even at long range.
However, while AESA radars are indeed the most advanced type in service, stealth aircraft detection would more likely be related to the use of a low-bandwidth UHF radar—such as the APY-9 radar on the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. Most stealth jets aren’t optimized to minimize returns on low-bandwidth radars—but such radars are too imprecise for weapons targeting.
Basically, a KJ-500 might alert a Chinese carrier that stealth jets were in the area and direct interceptors towards their general position, but the fighters would still have to close within shorter-range before their X-Band radars or infrared-search and track systems could give them a targeting solution. Meanwhile, the stealth jets could shoot at or evade them.
There is one major caveat, however—there are hints that the Navy has found a way to make the E-2D’s APY-9 capable of directing guided missiles, though the operational status of this capability is ambiguous. If this is possible and China could replicate the necessary radar and datalink technologies—both areas in which China is fairly advanced—then the KJ-600 and other Chinese AWACs could eventually pose a greater threat to stealth aircraft.
Whether or not that technology is in likely, P.W. Singer notes in an article that the KJ-600 will “likely be able to guide aircraft as well as help target long-range Chinese missiles and integrate data from multiple platforms into a single stream,” potentially allowing it to handoff targeting data between ships and aircraft and other ISR assets.
It still seems unlikely, however, that the KJ-600 could takeoff from the ski-jump style deck of China’s Type 001 carriers. Though one commentator in the SCMP article suggests the KJ-600 could use rocket boosters for takeoff, more likely the PLA Navy is looking ahead to deploying the radar planes on the two flat-deck Type 002 carriers currently under construction. These will have steam catapults and barrier-assisted recovery, while the two nuclear supercarriers it plans to have follow those are supposed to sport electromagnetic catapults.
The new Chinese AEW plane may not be quite the wonder weapon it’s made out to be, but it’s a useful capability which will allow Chinese carriers to extend radar coverage and coordinate operations further away from their littoral waters. Its another piece of evidence that Beijing is meticulously building up elements of its naval power with an eye on long-term higher-end capabilities.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This piece first appeared in 2018 and is being republished due to reader's interest.