Chinese AEW, ELINT and J-STAR Developments
Throughout most of the 1980's and 1990's China's armed forced lagged far behind those of the USA and NATO, certainly not in numbers, most but most notably in terms of equipment and capability. For years China purchased the vast majority of their military equipment from their communist comrades in Russia and when the end of this cordial relationship was replaced by mutual animosity and an end to arms exports, it left China's armed forces with a considerable amount of old, outdated equipment, suffering from poor serviceability and a lack of spare parts. Because of the difficulty of obtaining spare parts directly from Russia, the Chinese defence industry became highly skilled in 'reverse engineering' and was eventually able to produce most of the parts required and even complete new examples of old designs. However, the Chinese leadership realised that updating old Russian designs simply prolonged many of the fundamental deficiencies of the original designs themselves and have now changed their strategy. Whilst China was still a backward country with limited industrial resources and a fairly stagnant economy, there was little they could do, but times have changed. The Chinese leadership realised that to develop and expand their economy, they needed to allow a form of capitalism that built on the natural business instincts inherent in many of their population, whilst still subjecting them fairly tight state control. Once China embraced their unique form of state controlled capitalism and allowed businessmen some freedom of operation, their vast low-wage workforce were soon producing goods far cheaper than any other country and the economy started to soar, giving the Chinese dictatorship the money they needed to re-equip their armed forces.
However, the Chinese leadership soon realised that, despite a booming economy, they were unlikely to ever persuade the USA or any developed western nation to sell them advanced military equipment, so instead they turned to their old adversary, or what remained of it - Russia. In addition, they have also begun trying to develop modern aircraft and although they have had some success in stealing and reverse-emgineering some western technology, they know that the real solution is to develop the appropriate technologies themselves. The Chinese military appreciate only too well that in modern aerial warfare possessing thousands of fighters and fighter-bombers counts for little if they cannot be effectively deployed against an adversary and that they lack the latest AEW&C, ELINT and J-STARS capability required to accomplish this task.
When China still had good relations with Russia, a number of obsolete Tu-4 Bull aircraft, a reverse-engineered copy of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, were handed over to the PLA Air Force. China's first attempt at developing an AEW aircraft consisted of modifying one of these Tu-4 Bull aircraft 2806501 '4114' to carry a rotating mast AEW dish mounted on top of the fuselage. Their efforts were probably not very successful as only one aircraft was converted and it never entered operational service. After this failure they decided to tackle their lack of an effective AEW&C aircraft back in the late 1990's by attempting to acquire an Ilyushin IL-76 from Russia and then have it fitted out in Israel with the Elta EL/M-2075 Phalcon phased array AEW&C radar system. However, as soon as the USA got wind of this deal they applied pressure on Israel and the programme was cancelled in 2000. Next the Chinese turned to Russia and considered purchasing up to six examples of the Ilyushin IL-76/Beriev A-50, but this deal stalled when the Chinese realised that the Russians would only sell them an export version Beriev A-50Ah, with considerably reduced capability. With their attempts to acquire a modern AEW&C aircraft having been carefully obstructed by both the USA and Russia, China realised that the only solution left was to build an AEW&C aircraft of their own, utilizing whatever technology they could copy or steal from other countries.
Using the IL-76 airframe that Israel returned to China in 2002 after the Phalcon deal was scuppered, Xian Aircraft developed their own dorsal-mounted non-rotating radome, mounted on an unusual tri-cornered support structure, considerably different to the normal mounting used for the Russian A-50s. The radome is believed to house three separate phased-array radar modules mounted in a triangular configuration and was almost certainly developed in China. Some commentators have suggested that this phase-array radar may have been sold to China by Russia, but I suspect it is more likely the radar is based on technology stolen from another company in Europe or the USA and then copied by the Nanjing Research Institute of Electronic Technology. This airframe also featured two outward-canted ventral fins, as fitted to the IL-76 that Israel returned to China, almost certainly confirming the airframes identity. First flown in November 2003, the Chinese now appear to have at least two of these aircraft undergoing testing with the Chinese Flight Test Establishment CFTE) and have named these aircraft the King-Jing 2000 (KJ-2000). The actual capabilities of the aircraft remain unknown, but I would imagine it is some way behind the E-3D AWACS.
The next Chinese AEW&C aircraft to appear was the Shaanxi KJ-200. This featured a single 'balance-beam' linear-shaped electronically steered phased array radar antenna, mounted on top of the fuselage of a Shaanxi Y-8 turboprop transport aircraft, itself based on the An-12 Cub. How many versions of this aircraft were undergoing test-flights is not known, however, on 3 June 2006 one of these aircraft crashed in the eastern province of Anhui, killing all 40 people on board, many of whom were believed to be electronics experts and aircraft engineers from the Shaanxi Aircraft Industry Corporation based at Hanzhong.
The Chinese have also developed the Shaanxi Y-8 into an ELINT platform. This aircraft was first sighted in the summer of 2004 near Shanghai and features a long canoe-shaped fairing under the port side of the forward fuselage, together with various blade aerials and antennas mounted on the sealed rear loading ramp. A slightly different maritime ELINT version of the Shaanxi Y-8, possibly designed the Shaanxi Y-8(DZ) is undergoing flight trials for PLA Naval Air Force. This aircraft features a large dorsal fairing on top of the fuselage, just forward on the fin, a chin-mounted radome and various other blade aerials and antennas. How many of these aircraft are flying and their capability is not known.
The Shaanxi Y-8 platform has also been used as the basis for what's believed to be an experimental J-STARS type configuration. This aircraft features large bulged cheek fairings either side of the forward fuselage which are believed to house a sideways-looking radar. The fuselage also has various other fairings and one on the tip of the fin, which possibly houses ELINT receivers. Once again, how many of these aircraft are flying and their capability is not known.
The final experimental Shaanxi Y-8 is an AEW&C platform with a rotating radome mounted above the fuselage. Exactly what the radome houses is not known, but it is probably a single-sided phased array radar system. This aircraft may have been developed to enable comparisons to be made between its performance and the performance of the three-sided KJ-2000.
The rapid advances made recently by China in the AEW area will sooner or later lead to the production and operational deployment of at least one and possibly two AEW aircraft. However operationally effective these aircraft will prove to be remains to be seen, nevertheless there is little doubt that, with billions now flowing into the Chinese economy every year, the Chinese will continue to seek to acquire advanced western technology and the current evidence suggests that sooner or later, one way or another, they'll get their hands on it and start building and developing it themselves. I am not alone in hoping that more western politicians wake up to the danger posed by an expansionist China and then ensure aerospace industries take more effective steps to safeguard what we have and what they are so keen to acquire.
Updated Jan 08