Photos of what is believed to be a KJ-600 airborne early warning  (AEW) and control aircraft sitting on the flight deck of a warship replica in the central Chinese city of Wuhan have been circulating online in recent weeks.

These photos could be hints that the People’s Liberation Army has been trialing its new airborne radar-picket plane for the force’s future catapult-equipped flattops and that the first KJ-600 may make its maiden flight soon.

AEW is a weak underbelly in the PLA’s carrier air wing. One challenge is that such aircraft are too heavy and slow to operate off the PLA Navy’s existing carriers with upward-curved ramps, such as the  Liaoning and its lookalike sister ship that is currently undergoing sea trials.

At present, the Liaoning relies on an airborne early-warning variant of the Z-18 medium transport helicopter and an integrated radar system for airborne reconnaissance as a stopgap measure, but it’s said that these helicopters are hard put to airlift phased radars for long-distance warning and these slow-flying aircraft may also risk exposing the carrier’s position.

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A KJ-600 AEW plane. Photo: Handout

Now observers think the fixed-wing KJ-600 could be the closest Chinese counterpart of the US Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye, a versatile, all-weather, carrier-capable tactical AEW aircraft.

Built by the Xi’an Aircraft Corp under the state-owned juggernaut Aviation Industry Corp of China, the turboprop KJ-600 is mounted with a large active electronically scanned array radar in a radome on top of its fuselage. It bears a larger radar and flies higher than a helicopter and thus sees much further.

The US-based magazine Popular Science once reported that the KJ-600 likely traced much of its design ancestry back to a four-rudder variant of the Y-7 transport aircraft that was tested for a carrier-capable, fixed-wing AEW platform.

Given current Chinese combat data-linking and signal-processing capabilities, the KJ-600 will likely be able to guide aircraft as well as help target long-range Chinese missiles, detect stealth fighters from a foe in certain angles and ranges and integrate real-time data from multiple platforms into a single stream, according to the report.

The KJ-600 will most likely fly with China’s future carriers using electromagnetic catapults, Chinese military expert Lan Shunzheng told the Beijing-based Science and Technology Daily.