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China's New Carrier Based AWACS System and its Critical Role in Country's Naval Modernisation

February 02nd - 2018

With China set to field a fleet of four modern aircraft carriers by 2025 the People's Liberation Army Navy has had to commission several new supporting systems to allow its carrier battle groups to operate efficiently. Alongside the prolific J-15 Flying Shark, an advanced carrier based air superiority platform operating from the carrier Liaoling and set to operate from future ships, the Navy also requires carrier onboard deliver aircraft, sea helicopters and carrier based AWACS systems. Development of a carrier based electronic warfare aircraft using technologies pioneered by the Navy's H-6G, similar to those of the U.S. Navy's EA-18G Growler, are also likely in the near future. Use of the J-15's airframe to develop such a platform remains highly likely.

The United States Navy's E-2 Hawkeye is the most capable carrier based AWACS system in the world, and operates from U.S. Nimitz Class carriers as well as France's Charles De Gaulle Class warships. AWACS are an essential force multiplier for a carrier strike group, and their role is to detect enemy aircraft and missiles at extreme ranges to coordinate the actions of fighter contingents. This among other things allows friendly fighters to scramble to meet incoming threats in time. AWACS platforms carry powerful long range radars larger and more capable than those used by fighters, and can also coordinate with fighters to target enemy aircraft at extreme ranges.

China's own equivalent to the U.S. E-2 is the KJ-600, an AWACS system powered by twin FWJ-6C turboprop engines. The platform maintains a relatively light weight of 28 tons, allowing it to operate from carrier decks. Built by the Xian Aircraft Corporation, the platform is set to have a crew of 6. Its role in the Chinese Navy will be particularly critical for two reasons. The first is that China is likely to face fighters with radar evading capabilities should it operate against U.S. or Japanese forces, and powerful radars with anti stealth capabilities are therefore an invaluable asset both to prevent surprise attacks by and aid in the targeting of such platforms. Improved signal processing systems developed by China to allow existing radars such as the JY-26 to detect stealth platforms are likely to be integrated into the KJ-600 for this reason.

The second reason why China's Navy in particular can benefit from advanced AWACS systems is that Chinese fighters including the J-15 can deploy air to air missiles capable of targeting adversaries at extreme ranges. The PL-15 missile currently under development with a range of over 300km is but one example, and AWACS will be key to allowing J-15 fighters to make full use of this long range. The U.S. Navy by contrast does not field missiles capable of targeting adversaries over 105km away, with the AIM-120C being the Navy's most formidable platform. Chinese carrier based fighters coordinating with the KJ-600 will be able to use key targeting information provided by the AWACS platform to target both stealth aircraft and far off platforms they would otherwise be unable to detect. Should Chinese Naval assets be operating near the country's coasts, the KJ-600 can also potentially be used to coordinate supporting strikes with land based fighters.

Ultimately the KJ-600 is unlikely to match the capabilities of the E-2, primarily because it must maintain a much lighter weight to be able to launch via ski jump from China's Liaoning and Type 001 carriers where the heavier E-2 can make use of steam catapults or EMALS if deploying from the U.S. Navy's Nimitz or Gerald Ford Class warships respectively. With the commissioning of the Type 002 carrier with steam catapults and the Type 003 which is set to use EMALS, launch systems which will facilitate the deployment of heavier carrier based aircraft, the PLA Navy is likely to develop heavier and more capable carrier based AWACS systems with capabilities similar to if not exceeding those of the E-2. Until then the KJ-600 serves as an invaluable testbed for the development of AWACS technologies, and will both enhance the capabilities of the Liaoning and Type 001 carriers as well as testing technologies which will be integrated onto more capable successor systems in future. 

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