Chinese Airborne Early Warning (AEW)
The acquisition of an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) platform capable of conducting data relays has held a high priority in the PLAAF's efforts to modernize. China's acquisition of an AEW system would provide a dramatic advance in China's operational abilities. China has been actively pursuing an advanced airborne surveillance and control aircraft since the 1960's. China tested an AEW radar rotodome on a TU-4 platform, but there is no indication that this unique aircraft is intended as a prototype for subsequent production. In 1999, it introduced an airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, the Y-8AEW.
In November 2004 it was reported that the Chinese military was test-flying the first models of a domestic design surveillance aircraft. The new Chinese airborne warning and control system was said to use domestically produced advanced radar mounted on a Russian-made Il-76 transport aircraft.
China has developed and manufactured airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft - KJ-2000 and KJ-200 - which were on display at the PRC's 60th anniversary parade on 01 October 2009. The deployment of the AEW&C aircraft could considerably enhance the C4ISR capability of the PLAAF by reconnoitering aerial and maritime targets, collecting and disseminating information, and even undertaking the command if necessary.
Richard D. Fisher, Jr., Senior Fellow, International Assessment and Strategy Center, in testimony for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on China's Emergent Military Aerospace and Commercial Aviation Capabilities, May 20, 2010, noted that "There are now about five AWACS programs alone plus multiple other electronic support aircraft programs underway. China has apparently masters critical large active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar technology for AWACS, meaning they are a generation ahead of the technology used on U.S. Northrop-Grumman E-2 and Boeing E-3 AWACS. During the 1980s and 1990s there were multiple attempts to acquire foreign AWACS technology. Britain's Marconi apparently sold at least one example of its Argus radar from the cancelled Nimrod AEW program, which China placed on a modified Russian Ilyushin Il-76 transport. Then in the mid-1990s Britain's Racal Co. sold six of its Skymaster lightweight naval airborne early warning (AEW) radar, which still fly on the PLA Navy Air Force's Y-8J aircraft. Ostensibly sold to help China "combat piracy," by 1999 the Y-8J was observed in exercises providing long-distance cuing for ship-launched anti-ship missiles....
"... AWACS program is called by some sources the ZDK-03, uses a rotating radar array and is due to be delivered to Pakistan's Air Force in 2010. There may also be multiple airborne radar programs underway for the PLA Navy Air Force. ... In 2005 a Chinese magazine carried a photo of a politician visiting an aircraft design bureau and also seen was the partial image of an apparent fixed-wing turboprop powered AWACS aircraft similar in size to the U.S. Grumman E-1 Tracer. Then a 2009 journal article from China's Northwestern University featured a wind tunnel study of a Russian Sukhoi S-80 twin-boom turboprop with "saucer" and "beam" radar configurations, suggesting an alternate future AWACS for Chinese aircraft carriers."
Wayne A. Ulman, of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, U.S. Air Force, in testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission hearing on "China's Emergent Military Aerospace and Commercial Aviation Capabilities", stated on 20 May 2010 that "Many of the key supporting aircraft are not yet operational, or are not yet deployed in sufficient numbers. The KJ-200 and KJ-2000 AEW&C aircraft may just be reaching operational status and have not yet been built in large numbers."
China's aerial early warning (AEW) aircraft are 50 percent more efficient than US ones in terms of electromagnetic resources utility, prompting military Chinese analysts to claime on 07 July 2019 that the Chinese aircraft could retain maximum detection and communication capabilities even under strong hostile electromagnetic interference. Tang Xiaobin, a senior scientist at the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), developed an innovative theory on utilizing electromagnetic resources more efficiently and put it into use after she joined the Chinese AEW aircraft project in 1999, Beijing-based Science and Technology Daily reported on Friday.
Electromagnetic compatibility is a constant problem in electronic warfare, as strong radiation from electronic warfare antennas could interfere with other equipment on aircraft, resulting in a decrease in electromagnetic resources efficiency. Usually these incompatibilities must be found and solved one by one, which takes a lot of time and is not applicable on the more complicated AEW aircraft, so Tang designed a methodology to consider the electromagnetic environment as a whole by separating different electromagnetic energies into two categories: One that boosts certain capabilities, and one that hinders certain capabilities.
Specifics on the methodology were not detailed in the report, but it said that the methodology helped Chinese AEW aircraft enjoy a 50 percent increase in electromagnetic resources utility efficiency compared with mainstream US AEW aircraft. Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst, told the Global Times on Sunday that AEW aircraft could face strong electromagnetic interference from enemy forces, and this methodology could help protect aircraft systems from such attacks without having compatibility problems of its own. Thanks to this, China's AEW aircraft are more reliable (than US ones) and will always make the best of its electromagnetic resources, retaining its maximum detection and communication capabilities, Wei said.
China now operates multiple types of AEW aircraft including the KJ-200, KJ-500 and KJ-2000.
Future airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft could become unmanned, interconnected and highly intelligent, and will no longer need the traditional mounted radome, giving their greater aerodynamic and stealth capabilities, said China's top radar firm. Chinese military observers said on Wednesday that China is likely developing such aircraft. In an article introducing AEW system aircraft written by the 14th Research Institute of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) and posted on its public WeChat account on 16 July 2019, the company not only gave an overview on the history and facts of AEW carrying aircraft around the world, but also shared its vision on how this type of warplane could develop in the future.
Future AEW aircraft will become conformal, meaning antennas and sensors will be integrated into the aircraft's fuselage, the article said, noting that this will contribute to the warplane's aerodynamic and stealth capabilities and allow it to carry larger payloads. AEW system aircraft usually have a radome -- where antennas and sensors are stored -- mounted on top of its fuselage. A military expert who asked not to be named told the Global Times that this structure results in extra air drag and reflects more radar waves, making the aircraft cumbersome and easy to detect.
Future AEW aircraft will be more interconnected to a combat network, making it capable of receiving data from land, sea, air and space-based platforms, which can then provide support to combatants, according to the CETC article. A fighter jet could use target information received from AEW aircraft to deliver a strike without using its own radar, which could be suppressed in electronic warfare or intentionally shut down to maintain stealth. Radars on AEW aircraft will also become smarter, allowing them to scan and identify targets intelligently, while independently protecting themselves from jamming, the article said, adding they will also be able to better allocate resources and will be more user-friendly. Without a human pilot or crew, the aircraft will likely be smaller and stealthier.
A future airborne warning and control system (AWACS) will likely not be one single early warning aircraft, but a cluster of platforms that can accomplish different missions and build an information network, said chief designers of China's early warning aircraft. The development trend of the world's most advanced AWACS has two aspects, namely the capability of an individual aircraft and the system, Lu Jun, chief designer of China's KJ-2000 early warning aircraft, said in a seminar organized by xinhuanet.com, the website of the Xinhua News Agency, on 06 July 2021.
For individual aircraft, they will be more capable of dealing with small targets, stealth aircraft and drones, said Lu, also an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering. But war is not about just an individual aircraft, but a system, so there should be space, aerial, ground, maritime and underwater platforms integrated together and doing their job, Lu said, noting that this will enhance the joint combat capability based on an information network system. The fast-developing military intelligentization will also contribute to the development of AWACS, Lu said.
Cui Jixian, the executive deputy designer of China's KJ-500 early warning aircraft and the chief designer of country's next generation AWCAS, said at the seminar that future AWACS will definitely become an information network system that includes not only one single aircraft, but a cluster of platforms that can either operate together or alone. These platforms will play their specially designed roles based on the demands of combat missions, with the final goal being winning the war, Cui said, noting that both large and small AWCAS platforms are future trends.
Some Chinese military observers and analysts have been discussing whether larger platforms like the KJ-2000 or smaller platforms like the KJ-500 or even drones are better candidates for future AWACS development, but the two chief designers' remarks indicate that both types could be developed, a Chinese military expert told the Global Times on 08 July 2021, requesting anonymity.
The KJ-2000 was developed based on the Russian 190 ton-class Il-76 large transport aircraft, and the KJ-500 is derived from the domestically made 60 ton-class Y-8 medium-sized transport aircraft. The Y-20 large transport aircraft is a good platform to spawn an early warning variant, and completely new platforms could be in the works, the expert said.
When talking about the capabilities of China's AWACS, Lu said that the KJ-2000, China's first operational AWACS, is one full generation ahead of the US' E-3C AWACS and E-2C Hawkeye thanks to its phased array radar technology, citing a commentary by the US-based Jamestown Foundation in 2010. The KJ-500 is another generation ahead of the KJ-2000, meaning that China's AWACS is now leading the US ones by two generations, Lu said.
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