China has launched a new carrier-operated early warning surveillance plane that will allow it to attack further from shore without relying on ground-based spy planes.
The new aircraft, called the KJ-600, was “recently spotted in Xi’an, capital of Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province,” according to several news reports cited by the Chinese-government-backed Global Times earlier in the year.
At first glance, the aircraft looks like a transparent “rip-off” copy of the U.S. Navy’s carrier-launched E2D Hawkeye surveillance plane. It may be, as China’s cyber espionage is both well-known and publicly documented.
Nonetheless, if the aircraft is in any way comparable to its U.S. equivalent, it does bring a substantial new dimension to Chinese maritime combat operations. It creates a circumstance wherein carriers and surrounding support warships can potentially respond more quickly to incoming attacks or approaching enemy fleets while operating at great distances from the shore. An aircraft of this kind would therefore support open ocean (also called “blue-water”) warfare engagements by giving surface fleet critical off-shore data. At the moment, Chinese carriers rely upon short-range helicopters, equipped with smaller radar, shorter-spanning sensors and slower speeds when compared to a fixed-wing surveillance plane. An early warning aircraft, the Global Times reports, could more than double the 200-mile combat radius of helicopters.
“Judging from the images, Ordnance Industry Science Technology said that the KJ-600 has a very tight fuselage design, making it almost as long as the J-15 aircraft carrier-based fighter jet, and the Z-18 early warning helicopter. The aircraft carries a radar on the top of its middle fuselage, similar to China’s previous early warning aircraft KJ-2000 and KJ-500,” the paper says.
The Global Times report, however, also says it is not yet clear if the new plane has been successfully integrated with China’s first two operational carriers.
Ultimately, the success of the KJ-600, it would seem, will not only rely upon the range and fidelity of its sensors, but hinge upon its ability to network at tactically-relevant distances. The U.S. Navy’s Hawkeye, for instance, already operates with the ability to function as a networked “aerial node” able to guide interceptor missiles toward approaching enemy missiles traveling beyond the horizon. Bringing this ability to extend surveillance beyond the scope of most existing radars gives commanders considerably more time with which to detect, track and destroy anti-ship missiles traveling toward them. To do this, America has a technology called the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air. This now-deployed networked system is able to guide interceptor missiles such as an SM-6 to targets well beyond ranges previously thought possible.
Without a comparable ability, the Chinese Navy could potentially be out-ranged by U.S. ships and planes that could shoot farther than they can, rendering their new surveillance plane less relevant.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This first appeared earlier this year and is being reposted due to reader interest.