China’s latest carrier aircraft may not be a fighter, but it will be the most important plane in the fleet. The new XAC KJ-600 airborne early warning and control aircraft, which flew for this first time this weekend, will act as the unblinking eye of the fleet, detecting enemy threats far in advance and allowing a carrier to send its jets where they’re needed the most.
Like all other reverse engineering projects of China, XAC KJ-600 appeared identical to E-2 Hawkeye AEW&C operated by US Navy, Japanese Air Self Defense Forces and French Navy.
An aircraft carrier is a powerful, flexible air power platform, capable of both offensive and defensive missions thousands of miles from home. One of the biggest problems for carriers, however, is how to effectively utilize that air power. A carrier’s built-in radar can only see so far, from a few hundred miles at high altitude to two dozen miles or less at sea level.
The AEW&C’s importance in both offensive and defensive roles keeps planes and their crews busy. In the offense, a plane like the KJ-600 would fly alongside a flight of carrier-based fighters flying an anti-ship or strike mission against targets on the ground.
KJ-600 will be a familiar sight to aviation enthusiasts. Grainy photographs out of China depict a plane that is practically identical to the E-2 Hawkeye, from the shape of the aircraft to the radome mounted on top. The plane was developed by the Xi’an Aircraft Company, which also built China’s Y-20 heavy transport airplane.
According to Jane’s, the KJ-600 was spotted in June and August at the Chinese Flight Test Establishment at Xian Yanliang.
The KJ-600 won’t fly from China’s existing aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, as both carriers use a ski jump to get their Shenyang J-15 “Flying Shark” fighter jets airborne. Prop-powered planes like the E-2D and KJ-600 can’t generate enough ready power to take off using a ski jump.
Instead, China’s new plane will operate from the new Type 003 carrier, currently under construction at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, and future carriers. Type 003 will be the first Chinese carrier with a catapult system that can launch even large propeller-driven aircraft like the KJ-600 into the air.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy is advancing rapidly in building up carrier capability, and a new airborne early warning and control airplane will take Chinese naval aviation to the next level.
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