Japan publicises intercept of latest Chinese airborne early warning aircraft

Japan has publicised an intercept of China’s newest airborne early warning aircraft, the first time it has publicised an encounter with the type.

A news release by the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s Joint Staff’s public affairs office on the 23rd of March disclosed that the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) intercepted a Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft over the East China Sea.

The map of the KL-500 accompanying the news release (see above image) indicated that the aircraft was intercepted north of the Japan’s Ishigaki islands and west of Okinawa, where the JASDF interceptors likely came from.

The JASDF has two regiments of Mitsubishi F-15J/DJ Eagle interceptors based at Naha in Okinawa, where they have been heavily engaged in intercepting China military aircraft entering Japan’s air defence identification zone.

A photo taken by the JASDF interceptor showed the KJ-500 was carrying the serial number “09” on its vertical tail, indicating that it was an aircraft of China’s People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) carrying the new style two-digit serial that is slowly replacing the old five-digit serial number previously carried by PLAN aircraft.

The new-style serial number makes it more difficult to tie the aircraft to its parent unit, but the flightpath indicated in the Japanese MoD news release showed the KJ-500 flying from and returning to the northwest, roughly in the direction of the Chinese megacity of Shanghai.

That would suggest that the aircraft may be from the PLAN’s 1st Naval Air Division based at Shanghai-Dachang air base. Satellite photos show that the base (located at approximately 38°18’42” N, 121°24’57” E) is home to several variants of Chinese special mission aircraft based on the Shaanxi Y-9 airlifter, which the KJ-500 is also based on, since 2018.

The above satellite photo, taken by Maxar Technologies in October 2019, shows two KJ-500s (top left) with four more Y-9 special missions aircraft on the ground at Dachang. Two more special missions aircraft, this time the KQ-200 long-range maritime patrol/anti-submarine aircraft, can also be seen at the base although they are included in the above photo.

The KJ-500 entered service in late 2014, complementing China’s earlier KJ-200 and KJ-2000 AEW&C aircraft. The type features a non-rotating circular radome on top of its fuselage along a nose radome and housings, possibly for electronic intelligence gathering on both sides of the fuselage.

The dorsal radome mounts a phased-array radar in three separate, fixed arrays angled 120° to each other for all-round coverage. The KJ-500 is based on an Y-9 airlifter airframe, and the PLAN has also deployed the type over the disputed South China Sea, operating from bases in China’s southern island of Hainan.

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