An aircraft carrier transforms a navy. It allows them to project its power thousands of miles from their own shores and is one of the hallmarks of a true ‘blue water’ navy. The Chinese Navy (PLAN) was until recently considered only a ‘brown water navy,’ but now it has two carriers and is building more.
Yet if the PLAN’s carriers sail east into the Pacific or south to the Indian Ocean they may be vulnerable to air attack. This is because they lack airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. But the new KJ-600 plane is about to change that.
The KJ-600 aircraft is generally similar to the U.S. E-2 Hawkeye. It has a virtually identical layout, to the point that it can casually be referred to as a ‘copy.’
AEW&C planes can detect and track other aircraft at extreme ranges. This greatly increases the suitability of the carrier, and effectiveness of its combat aircraft, because they can see much further. Incoming raids or missiles can be detected much further away and the carrier’s air wing can be called to action.
China will be the third navy with fixed-wing AEW planes on its carriers. Only the U.S. Navy and French Navy (Marine Nationale) have the E-2 Hawkeye. Other countries such as Britain and India use helicopters. These are still valuable, but they are shorter ranged and generally have smaller radars.
The similarities between the Hawkeye and the KJ-600 should not be overstated. It is likely to be a case of form following function. Even the Soviet Union’s now-cancelled design, the Yak-44, used the same layout. The important question is how the KJ-600 will transform China’s carrier capability.
Rick Joe, who writes extensively on Chinese aviation and navel developments, believes that the KJ-600 will be a massive boost to China’s Navy. “Once it enters service on the carriers, it will greatly enhance the aerial and maritime situational awareness. And the offensive and defensive capabilities of the carrier group.”
Satellite images of the new plane suggest that the KJ-600 will have a single-faced radar which rotates in a ‘rotodome’ above the fuselage. Joe believes that the radar itself will be of the latest AESA (Active Electronically scanned array) type.
This makes the KJ-600 similar to the E-2D variant of the Hawkeye currently in service with the U.S. Navy. Joe told me that the KJ-600 will “field the most capable radar and datalinking technology that the current Chinese aerospace industry are able to develop. This is not dissimilar to E-2D’s level of advancement for its current time.” He adds that “Chinese aerospace and military industry has certainly shown its ability to develop quite modern and capable AEW&C systems for other air, naval and ground applications.” Having said that, the Hawkeye may have capabilities which the the public are not aware of. Despite this, Joe concludes that the “closest technological contemporary to KJ-600 would probably be the E-2D.”
The big question mark is whether the KJ-600 will be able to fly off all of China’s carriers. The first two, Liaoning and Shangdong, use a ski-jump to launch their aircraft. The KJ-600 may be too heavy to take-off under its own power even with a ski jump. So it may be confined to the new Type-003 which has a catapult launch system. This is hinted at in the 2020 China Military Power Report to Congress. It says that the catapult “will enable it to support … fixed-wing early-warning aircraft.”
Developing a dedicated fixed-wing AEW&C aircraft for just a handful of carriers is expensive. It shows the importance that the Chinese Navy places on the added capability over the helicopter based alternative. Even if it means that the first two carriers continue to lack AEW.
Possibly the costs will be able to offset by an export version. The export-friendly KLC-7 radar system, which was illustrated in a KJ-600-like aircraft, was shown at the Zhuhai 2018 Airshow. This is likely to be a completely different radar to Chinese Navy KJ-600s though, and presumably less capable.
China’s blue water navy is developing fast. And the KJ-600 will make all the difference in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.