A lot has been written about China’s military modernization over the past 10-15 years and rightfully so, for it really has been quite staggering how the country has transformed its military from a numerically impressive but limited, Eastern bloc-style military into a modern capable force that is giving the American and regional militaries plenty of food for thought.
China’s military transformation has unsurprisingly applied correspondingly to its air arm, and while most of the attention has been paid to the qualitative improvement of its air combat arm, which has gone from being dominated by (slightly improved, if at all) 1950s and 1960s Soviet-era MiGs to modern Chinese-built derivatives of the Sukhoi Su-27/30 Flanker family of fighters, indigenous Chengdu J-10 multi-role fighters and the Chengdu J-20 stealthy fighter and its bomber fleet increasingly used as anti-ship and cruise missile carriers.
A lot less attention has however been paid to the ongoing improvement in China’s airborne support forces. In addition to airlifters, force multipliers like airborne early warning, maritime patrol and specialised electronic warfare and intelligence gathering aircraft have also been introduced into service with both the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF and its naval counterpart, the People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF).
China has put into service at least 12 different types of specialised aircraft based on the Shaanxi Y-8 and more recently the Shaanxi Y-9 turboprop airlifters for carrying out a diverse set of missions, ranging from electronic and signals intelligence gathering, long-range anti-submarine warfare and psychological operations.
Each of these uniquely configured aircraft come under the “High New” (GaoXin in Chinese) code name, with each type is given a unique numerical designation after the GaoXin or GX prefix and carry various distinct fairings, housings and antennas for indigenously-developed equipment related to their specialised mission sets. The High New series of special missions aircraft started around 2005, following an earlier Chinese effort to develop such aircraft around the turn of the century.
This resulted in the Y-8X and the Y-8J. The former is a long-range maritime patrol/surveillance platform with a limited Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) gathering capability which carried an American Litton AN/APS-504(V)3 surface search radar as its primary sensor in an enlarged under-nose radome, while the latter was fitted with a Racal (later Thales) Skymaster multi-mode radar similar to that fitted to some Britten-Norman Islanders.
The Y-8J entered service around 2000, soon after the Y-8X, and performed a similar role along with that of a basic AEW&C platform for the PLANAF. That both types were fitted with western sensors is testament to the thaw in China’s relations with the western world following the end of the Cold War, a period that seems almost quaint in the current climate.
Both types were joined by the first of the High New-series aircraft, the GX-1 and GX-2 around 2004/2005. These were both ELINT/SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) aircraft based on the Y-8 airframe for the PLAAF and PLANAF respectively, and are fitted with both ELINT/SIGINT antennas and Electronic Support Measures (ESM) equipment on board.
The was followed by the GX-3 standoff jammer and the GX-4 airborne command post. The GX-5 is an AEW&C aircraft with a radar (that we will cover in more detail below), while the GX-6 is a long-range maritime patrol/anti-submarine aircraft similar to the Lockheed-Martin P-3 Orion that is being rapidly introduced into the PLANAF order of battle after a protracted development process.
The GX-7 is a psychological warfare platform that has powerful jammers to interrupt targeted radio and television broadcasts and replace these with its own programming. The GX-7 rounded up the “first generation” of the GX family, which are now complemented and likely to be progressively replaced by a new generation of special missions aircraft. These are based on the Y-9 airframe, and include the GX-8 (ELINT/SIGINT), GX-9 (psychological operations/cyberattack), GX-10 (KJ-500 AEW&C) and GX-11 (ECM).
In addition, China has converted a number of Russian Tupolev Tu-154 airliners into ELINT/SIGINT platforms fitted with a ventral canoe housing a Synthetic Aperture Radar in the mid-1990s. These are still active as of early 2019, with one being intercepted by Japanese fighters over the East China Sea in March that year.
Airborne Early Warning
The PLAAF also operates three different types of modern AEW&C aircraft. In Chinese service, these are referred to as the KongJing which is literally translated to “Airborne Warning”. The earliest of these is the KJ-200, a Y-8 airframe carrying a dorsal “balance beam” radar mounted in a “balance beam” configuration that looks similar to that of Saab’s Erieye system. Development of the KJ-200 started in in 2001 with the type entering service only in 2009, with the tragic crash of a prototype in 2006 that killed 40 crew and engineers setting the program back significantly.
The KJ-200 entered service with PLAAF’s 26th Special Missions Division at Wuxi in Jiangsu province west of Shanghai, which is the primary PLAAF AEW&C aircraft unit. At least ten KJ-200s are in service with both the PLAAF and PLANAF today, although the type has since been complemented with a new AEW&C design. Based on the Y-9 airframe and designated the KJ-500, the type features a non-rotating circular radome in place of the balance beam radar, which mounts an AESA radar in three separate arrays angled 120° to each other for all-round coverage.
The first KJ-500 entered service with the PLAAF in late 2014, with the new type also assigned to the PLANAF soon after. The latter service has deployed both types of AEW&C to operate over the disputed South China Sea, operating from bases in China’s southern island of Hainan.
In 1996 China signed a deal with Israel’s IAI for the conversion of three of its Il-76 fleet to AEW&C aircraft fitted with Israel’s PHALCON radar. The first aircraft had been converted although had not been delivered when intense U.S. pressure managed to get Israel to walk away from the deal in 2000, which saw the radar and other components taken off the aircraft before its return to China.
This forced China to develop its own KJ-200 and a larger AEW&C platform called the KJ-2000. Fitted with a phased array radar arranged in a similar configuration to the later KJ-500, the first of four KJ-2000s entered service in 2005, with the radar reportedly claimed to have a maximum detection range of 470 km (290 miles).
The KJ-2000 is the PLAAF’s high-end AEW&C solution, but China’s desire to see more built has been stymied by the inability to acquired additional Il-76 airframes, and there have been suggestions China is seeking to develop its homegrown Xian Y-20 heavy airlifter into an AEW&C platform.
An increasingly regular sight
Several of these special missions types have actually been involved in operations in both the South and East China Seas, where the aircraft operating over the latter a regularly photographed by intercepting Japanese fighter jets as they fly in international airspace but inside Japan’s generous Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ).
These are mostly routine training flights or PLAAF/PLANAF exercises which are growing in scope and reach. However, some of these interceptions appear to be during operational missions, with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) and Republic of Korea Air Force reporting since mid-2019 that a PLANAF GX-8 would be intercepted as it made its way through the Tsushima Strait into the Sea of Japan (East Sea to the Koreans) and back.
The missions usually occur monthly, almost always at the tail end of the month and likely originate from PLAN airbases bordering the Yellow Sea. The use of the GX-8 would suggest the Chinese are collecting electronic data from Japanese air defence systems in Western Honshu, although they always stay inside international airspace and have not been reported to be flying in anything resembling an aggressive fashion.
The special missions aircraft have also made appearances over the South China Sea, which is better known for the ongoing dispute between China and five other Southeast Asian nations over the ownership of potentially resource-rich islands and features. PLANAF Y-8X and Y-8J MPAs have been stationed on bases at China’s southern Hainan island, and they have been joined by KJ-200sand more recently KJ-500s and GX-6s, with the former types observed overhead during occasional stand offs at with the coast guard and navies other claimant nations, usually Vietnam.