Why America’s stealth jet forces should fear China’s new unarmed eye in the sky
The Chinese military is developing a carrier-based early-warning plane that will be fitted with radar to detect the most advanced aircraft at longer range
China is developing a surveillance plane designed to be launched from the country’s newest aircraft carrier and fitted with a radar system to spot enemy stealth jets, military observers say.
State media confirmed for the first time on Monday that China was building its first carrier-borne early-warning plane called the KJ-600.
The announcement comes as the United States has deployed F-35 stealth jets to bases in Japan and other parts of the Asia-Pacific over the last year, challenging China’s air defences in the region.
Chinese military observers said the KJ-600 would be fitted with an advanced active electronically scanned array, or AESA, radar which could enable it to spot stealth aircraft such as US F-22s and F-35s.
Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said the new surveillance plane could also become a command centre in the air.
“AESA can detect stealth fighters at a very long range,” Li said.
He said the aircraft would fill a critical weapons gap with the US and improve the combat effectiveness of Chinese carrier battle groups.
Li said the KJ-600 would likely be used on China’s third aircraft carrier under construction in Shanghai and be compatible with its advanced electromagnetic launch system (EMALS). EMALS can launch jets more quickly and effectively than the ski-jump ramps used on China’s first two aircraft carriers.
US-based military website Eastern Arsenal reported last year that the KJ-600 was being built by Xi’an Aircraft Corporation, weighed 25-30 tonnes, was powered by twin turboprop engines, and had a large AESA radar on its fuselage.
Military analysts said photographs of the KJ-600 suggested it was very similar to the E-2 Hawkeye, the US’ all-weather, carrier-capable tactical airborne early-warning aircraft.
Military analyst Zhou Chenming, also based in Beijing, said the KJ-600 radar system would put the plane on a par with US early-warning aircraft.
“The biggest advantage of the KJ-600 is it’s equipped with a more sophisticated radar and communication system allowing it to monitor a wider range of signals and even detect stealth fighters in a certain angle,” Zhou said.
For now, China’s aircraft carrier combat group is restricted to shipboard surveillance radars, which have a limited range because of the Earth’s curvature.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Maritime Security Programme at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the development of the KJ-600 suggested China wanted its carrier group to function far from shore.
“If China’s carrier group is designed more to operate closer to home waters, it would rely on shore-based early warning support,” Koh said.
“But with [the early-warning] planes, it implies that the People’s Liberation Army Navy carrier battle group is designed for distant sea operations ... requiring ... a more comprehensive early-warning umbrella.”
But Li and Zhou disagreed over whether the KJ-600 would also be used on China’s first two aircraft carriers.
Li said surveillance helicopters were a better option while Zhou said the KJ-600 could be equipped with a one-off rocket propeller to launch from the vessels’ ski-jump ramps.