As China builds aircraft carriers, it was expected to develop a carrier-based airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system — and that appears to be happening with the recent progress of the KJ-600.
Unverified photos posted on social media show the fixed-wing aircraft recently made its first test flight, Ordnance Industry Science Technology, a Xi’an-based magazine on the national defense industry, reported.
This type of aircraft will become far-reaching eyes and significantly boost the comprehensive combat capability of Chinese aircraft carriers, which currently only have helicopters for early warning purposes, The Global Times reported.
An aircraft identified as the KJ-600 was recently spotted in Xi’an, capital of Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, in a commercial satellite image, the Chinese magazine reported, citing a report in Forbes.
The Chinese military or the aircraft’s manufacturer has not announced the maiden flight of the aircraft as of press time.
Wang Ya’nan, chief editor of Beijing-based Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told the Global Times that when China’s aircraft carriers sail beyond land-based early warning aircraft support, the carriers would lose their full combat potential.
Wang said that this kind of aircraft can quickly create an early warning and control system to allow an aircraft carrier combat group to independently carry out missions.
China’s aircraft carriers currently rely on early warning helicopters, but they can only carry smaller radars, have limited speed and only cover a radius of about 200 kilometers, while a fixed-wing early warning aircraft can cover about 400 to 500 kilometers, Wang said.
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.
It likely uses two WJ-6C turboprop engines, but could switch to the newer WJ-10s in the future, the report said.
It is reported that KJ-600 may have 5-6 crew members, including captain and co-pilot and flight crew operating radar and combat control systems.
It is not knows if the KJ-600 can operate on China’s current two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong, which use ski-jump flight decks without catapults. Experts say a fixed-wing aircraft is too heavy for a ski-jump takeoff.
China’s third aircraft carrier is expected to use a flat flight deck with electromagnetic catapults, which will be compatible with the KJ-600, analysts said.
The plane resembles Northrop Grumman’s E-2 Hawkeye: a prop-driven, all-weather, carrier-capable early warning aircraft in service since the 1960s, the report said.
The KJ-600 would be fitted 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.
Nothing gives quite as good a peak literally over the horizon (and the curvature of the Earth) than a huge radar on top of an airplane.
Beijing-based military expert Li Jie told Global Security in January 2018 that the aircraft can detect Lockheed Martin’s stealthy, fifth-generation F-35 and F-22 aircraft.
Unconfirmed reports have floated since 2016 that Chinese radars are capable of tracking the F-22, when the People’s Liberation Army claimed that it sent warships and helicopters to an area in the East China Sea after detecting the Raptor.
Defense expert Dave Majumdar wrote at the time for the National Interest that “it’s very possible that China can track the Raptor. Stealth is not a cloak of invisibility, after all. Stealthy technology simply delays detection and tracking.”