China’s KJ-600 early warning aircraft is more than just a clone of the Hawkeye.
As China expands its aircraft carrier fleet to include catapult-launched aircraft, it is adding new aircraft to round out the air wing’s capabilities. A new airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, the KJ-600, made its maiden flight in early September, and its design would apparently be inspired by the US Navy’s Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye. The carrier-based aircraft took to the skies for the first time over Xian in Shaanxi in the second week of September, the Xian-based Ordnance Industry Science Technology reported. However, the Chinese Ministry of Defense has not made an official statement or verified the fact to the press.
In-flight photos of the turboprop-powered plane appeared on social media just as commercial satellite photos of the KJ-600 parked on an air base runway in Xian also began to circulate. However, the aircraft’s design was not much of a mystery to military observers: an experimental design used to build the KJ-600, called the JZY-01, appeared in 2018. That aircraft, in turn, was based on the Antonov An Soviet -24, a transport plane, which at 23.46 meters long is too big to be launched from an aircraft carrier. 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 carrier-based fighter jet and the Z-early warning helicopter.
The aircraft carries a radar on top of its central fuselage, similar to the KJ-2000 and KJ-500 ground-based early warning aircraft, and is likely to use two WJ-6C turboprop engines, but could switch to the newer WJ-10s in the future, according to the report.
IS THE KJ-600 A HAWKEYE CLONE?
The KJ-600 aircraft is clearly inspired by the very similar US E-2 Hawkeye, in use by the US Navy and with many of its allies since the 1960s, and has a virtually identical design, to the point that it may happen to be called a “copy.” This is likely because the Hawkeye’s design is already optimized for this role: its turboprop engines allow it a range of up to four hours above the carrier’s battle group, where its massive fuselage-mounted radome can dramatically extend range. of the fleet radar.
Its slender fuselage leaves enough room for four to six crew members to operate, while still being small enough to fit under the aircraft carrier decks, and its four vertical empennage tail provides superior stability and space. for the huge radome. 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 canceled Yakovlev Yak-44, which was part of a series of Soviet fixed-wing AWACS development programs, had the same configuration as the E-2C. The important question is how the KJ-600 will transform the capability of China’s aircraft carriers.
FROM MARINA OF BROWN WATERS TO MARINA OF BLUE WATERS
An aircraft carrier transforms a navy. It allows them to project their 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 just a “brown water navy,” but now it has two aircraft carriers and is building more. However, if PLAN carriers sail east to the Pacific or south to the Indian Ocean, they may be vulnerable to an air strike. This is because they lack control and early warning aircraft (AEW & C). But the new KJ-600 aircraft is about to change that. AEW & C aircraft can detect and track other aircraft at extreme distances. This greatly increases the suitability of the aircraft carrier and the effectiveness of its fighter jets, because they can see much further.
Incoming incursions or missiles can be detected much further afield and can be dispatched in advance to intercept by fighters on the carrier’s air wing. China will be the third navy with fixed-wing AEW jets on its carriers. Only the United States Navy and the French Navy (Marine Nationale) have the E-2 Hawkeye. Other countries like Great Britain and India use helicopters. These are still valuable, but they have a shorter range and generally have smaller radars. Rick Joe, who writes extensively on developments in Chinese aviation, believes the KJ-600 will be a major boost for the Chinese Navy. “Once it enters service on aircraft carriers, it will greatly improve awareness of the air and sea situation. 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-sided radar that rotates in a “rotodome” on the fuselage. Joe believes that the radar itself will be of the latest AESA type (Active Electronic Scanning Array). This makes the KJ-600 similar to the E-2D variant of the Hawkeye currently in service with the US Navy. Joe claims that the KJ-600 “will deploy the most capable radar and data link technology than the Current Chinese aerospace industry is able to develop. This is not very different from the level of advancement of the E-2D for its current time. He adds that “the Chinese military and aerospace industry has certainly demonstrated its ability to develop fairly modern and capable AEW & C systems for other air, naval and ground applications.”
Having said that, the Hawkeye may have capabilities that the public is not aware of. Despite this, Joe concludes that the “closest technological contemporary to the KJ-600 would probably be the E-2D.” The big question is whether the KJ-600 will be able to fly from every aircraft carrier in China. The first two, Liaoning and Shangdong, use a ski jump for their planes to take off. The KJ-600 may be too heavy to take off on its own, even with a ski jump (The Yak-44E would have achieved this thanks to its two powerful 13,800 hp unit power Progress D-27 propfan engines). So it can be limited to the new Type-003 which has a catapult launch system. This is hinted at in the 2020 Report on China’s Military Power to Congress. It says the catapult “will allow it to support … fixed-wing early warning aircraft.”
China’s two carriers currently have another option for an AEW aircraft in the form of the specially modified Z-18J helicopters, but they have a much shorter range than the KJ-600 likely would: about 200 miles (322 km). the Z-18J versus a probable range of 500 miles (800 km) for the KJ-600. However, even that is better than the aircraft carrier’s tower-based radar, which cannot see beyond the horizon, just 12 miles (20 km) away. 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 additional capacity over the helicopter-based alternative. Even if that means the first two carriers continue to operate without a fixed-wing AEW. Possibly the costs can be offset with an export version. The export-grade KLC-7 radar system, which was showcased on an aircraft similar to the KJ-600, was shown at the 2018 Zhuhai Airshow. However, this is likely to be a completely different radar than the KJ-600. of the Chinese Navy, and presumably less capable. China’s blue water navy is developing rapidly. And the KJ-600 will make a difference in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.