Chinese Air Force’s fighter aircraft technology is outpacing its lagging AEW&C technology

Chinese lack serious AEW&C capability to guide their modern fighters.

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

The J-7 and JH-7 from Chengdu Aviation Corporation (CAC), copies of the MiG-21 from the Soviet era, the JJ-7 from Guizhou Aviation Industry Group, and the J-8 from Shenyang Aviation Corporation (SAC) have been the Chinese Air Force’s [People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)] mainstay fighters over the years. The CAC has replaced its fighter aircraft with J-10s, while the SAC has replaced it with J-11s and J-16s.

Jane’s Defence Weekly (JDW) reported on February 8 that the Chinese Air Force will have deployed 260 J-10/11/16 fighters by the end of 2022 out of 466 J-7/8 fighters distributed across 13 air brigades. They supplanted older aircraft in eight Air Force divisions near the South and East China Seas in the Southern and Eastern Theatre Commands. The 15/36/78/86 Air Force Brigades, which are situated close to the South and East China Seas, reportedly received the repurposed older aircraft.

In particular, the SAC’s J-16 fighter, which has seen active service since 2015, is a knockoff of the Russian Su-27. It can carry around 6 tonnes of weaponry, has a radar system, and can travel a range of 3,389 kilometres.

On May 26, 2022, the Australian Air Force’s P-8A Poseidon, a cutting-edge maritime surveillance aircraft, flew over the South China Sea when a Chinese Air Force J-16 fired flares and chaff rounds in front of it, limiting its flight. 

The 9th Air Force Brigade at Wuhu Air Base in Anhui Province received CAC’s fifth-generation stealth J-20 fighter aircraft in March 2017, and by April 2022, all air bases under the Chinese Army’s five theatre commands are expected to have received these planes as well. Beginning in May 2021, the East China Sea and the South China Sea have both been subject to regular J-20 air patrol activities. It can travel at Mach 2 and range around 5,500 km because of its Russian AL-31F engine and Chinese WS-10 type thrust vectoring control (TVC) turbofan engine, although its mounted armament is limited due to its armed form for stealth effect.

In March of 2022, US Air Force Pacific commander General Kenneth Wilsbacher stated that an F-35A stealth fighter had engaged a Chinese Air Force J-20 stealth fighter over the East China Sea and that the US pilot had judged the Chinese aircraft to be performing in a hostile manner.

Even though they are replacing ageing fighter aircraft, it is well-known that the Chinese Air Force’s ground-based AEW&C capabilities need updating and enhancement. The original J-7/8 fighter jets, which have since been replaced by the superior J-10/11/16/20, relied heavily on the ground control centre for timely tactical direction. However, it is common knowledge that a lack of ground-based AEW&C resources restricts aviation operations.

The Chinese have launched numerous initiatives to enhance aircraft AEW&C capabilities over vast areas to eradicate ground-based AEW&C shadows (low altitude blindness). However, technological and operational challenges have emerged and must be addressed.

The Chinese Air Force has operated five KJ-2000 large AEW&C aircraft, based on the Russian Il-76 large transport fuselage, since the early 2000s. Between 2018 and 2022, 25 KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft with fuselages from Y-9 cargo planes were deployed to aid the tactics of the antiquated J-7/8 fighters.

Due to issues with the availability of Soloviev D-30KP-2 engines and other components for Il-76-type aircraft, the enormous KJ-2000 AEW&C aircraft could only fly on a limited basis. The aircraft is notorious for missing vital targets due to its inability to detect increasingly stealthy and smaller air targets, revealing an obvious operational deficiency.

In 2006, when the Chinese Air Force realised that the KJ-2000 and KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft were inadequate, they began installing Canadian Pratt & Whitney PW150B turboprop engines in the Y-8 fuselage. The Swedish company Saab supplied the Chinese Air Force with the Erieye-type pelvic fin-shaped active phased array (AESA) radar used in developing and operating the KJ-200 AEW&C. An improved KJ-200A/B AEW&C has reportedly been created.

The 2016-deployed KJ-200A AEW&C aircraft was equipped with a V/UHF communication link, an ESM-level electronic warfare support system, and the fin-shaped Erieye AESA radar. Additional features, such as ground moving target detection (GMIT) radar, an electronic information (ELINT) collector for self-defence, and an infrared optical detection (EO/IR) system on the lower front of the fuselage will be added to the KJ-200B AEW&C aircraft this year and beyond as it is deployed. When an aperture (SAR) radar is used in place of an AESA radar, the effectiveness of the AEW&C system is greatly enhanced.

Military experts claim that the KJ-200A/B AEW&C used by the Chinese Air Force is equipped with a SAR radar that can detect air targets at up to 450 km. The effectiveness of the sideline detection method was evaluated and found to be almost 360 degrees. The 3GHz E/F band is utilised, and a high radar frequency results in a compact design; this design is comparable in effectiveness to that of the electronic skin radar installed on US, UK, Australian, and South Korean E-737 type AEW&C aircraft.

Aircraft owned by the United States, Australia, Japan, and Korea, the E-737 AEW&C and the E-2C/D AEW&C, are superior in air target detection distance and target detection number, respectively. Here are three main parameters to compare:

Duration of the flight 

China uses the inferior Y-8 propeller engine fuselage, while the US, Japan, Australia, and South Korea use the superior Boeing 737-700 fuselage. However, on February 22, JDW stated that a KJ-200A/B AEW&C from the Chinese Air Force flew for about 10 hours over 5,600 kilometres at an altitude of 20 kilometres and a speed of 550 kilometres per hour. 

The range of detection and the number of targets

Wide-area AEW&C aircraft of the E-767 type are in possession of Japan. These aircraft have a detection range of 320 km. The E-2C/D AEW&C aircraft for maritime AEW&C has a range of 640 kilometres. However, the Chinese KJ-200A/B type has been publicly confirmed to have a range of 450 km.

Ground Targets

Chinese aircraft need more capacity to support ground targets. The Chinese Air Force now uses the KJ-200B as a ground operation support aircraft due to the inclusion of the GMIT function. This is comparable to the mission of the United States Air Force’s Joint Air Strategic Target Support Aircraft (JSTAR). Despite this, it is anticipated that the capability of the AEW&C to identify even ground targets will be extremely limited. Because all efforts are focused on air targets, even though the detection range is approximately 450 kilometres, the response time will be short given the expected speed of hostile aircraft approaching from that distance.

In addition to the KJ-200A/B AEW&C aircraft, the Chinese Navy is known to operate the Y-8J maritime AEW&C, a variant of the Russian An-12 transport aircraft outfitted with a Racal Skymaster naval detection radar. The Y-8J AEW&C aircraft is believed to have a range of 85 to 110 kilometres and can handle up to 100 air and 30 marine targets.

According to military experts, the Chinese Air Force and Navy will deploy KJ-200A/B and Y-8J AEW&C aircraft to monitor the US Air Force and Navy’s air patrol operations in the East China Sea, as well as J-10, J-11/16, and J-20 type stealth fighters to serve as airborne early warning aircraft.

However, the performance of the Chinese Air Force’s KJ-200A/B AEW&C aircraft is not as good as that of the E-7A, E-767, and E-2C/D aircraft utilised for AEW&C operations by the United States and its important allies. In the meantime, the United States and its allies are working on a plan to develop the ATHENA radar to designate high-altitude ISRT missions to support future ground theatre operations. However, it is anticipated that the AEW&C aircraft will have an even lower level of capability.

Even though the Chinese Air Force replaced the MiG-21-inspired J-7/8 fighters from the 1960s with non-stealth J-10/11-16 and stealth J-20 planes, the early warning capability is an issue. It is common knowledge that the Chinese AEW&C capability for airborne early warning is only concentrated on the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the West Sea. However, this capability is still at a standstill with no new technological breakthroughs. The Chinese Air Force is in a tough spot because they still have a long way to go.


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