PRC State media confirmed for the first time on Monday that China was building its first carrier-borne early-warning plane called the KJ-600. Military observers in the region say the surveillance plane is probably designed for launch from China’s newest aircraft carrier and will be outfitted with a stealth sensing radar system capability.
The U.S. mounted a significant challenge to China’s air defenses in the region over the last year when it began deploying F-35s to bases in Japan. The KJ-600 appears to be China’s answer to that challenge.
Sources say 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 U.S. F-22s and F-35s. The AESA is housed in a radome on top of the fuselage and can detect stealth signatures at long range.
According to Janes, the KJ-600 is built by the Xian Aircraft Corporation, weighs 25-30 tons and is powered by twin-engine FWJ-6C turboprop engines. It can be distinguished from other Chinese twin engine turboprop planes by its folding wings and four-rudder airframe tail (similar to that found on the American E-2 Hawkeye).
This aircraft would serve alongside J-15 T fighters and help fill a critical weapons gap with the U.S., improving the overall combat effectiveness of Chinese carrier battle groups.
Some experts contend the KJ-600 could also serve in a command and control capacity from the air, something new for Chinese forces. The PLA has only improved its overall interoperability in recent years and has been working diligently to model the U.S. in this area. Its blue water navy capabilities are still extremely new and its ground forces have little to no real world experience. China is always looking to shrink the daylight between its largely untested military and U.S. forces who have been actively engaged in continuous conflict for nearly 20 years.
Military analysts say photographs of the KJ-600 suggest it is very similar to the E-2 Hawkeye, the U.S. all-weather, carrier-capable tactical airborne early-warning aircraft.
Currently, China’s aircraft carrier combat group is restricted to shipboard surveillance radars, which have a limited range because of the Earth’s curvature. The advantage the KJ-600 may provide is an ability to monitor a wider range of signals and even detect stealth fighters at greater angles.
The implication of this new development is that China is planning to field its carrier fleet farther from home. A carrier group designed to operate closer to home waters would rely on shore-based early warning support. A People’s Liberation Army Navy carrier battle group designed for distant sea operations requires a more comprehensive early-warning umbrella. The KJ-600 gives them just that.
Featured image courtesy of YouTube.