Traditionally a land power, Beijing has felt compelled by events in the last two centuries to see the Pacific Ocean as its vulnerable flank. Now China has made no secret of its quest to develop an aircraft carrier rapidly with aviation capabilities similar to those of the United States.

Buying a mothballed Soviet-built hull and retrofitting it into a training aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and then building a lookalike vessel – Type 001A – from scratch are evidence that Beijing is making strides and meticulously building up elements of its naval power.

However, Sebastien Roblin, a US-based military commentator and columnist, cautions that the Chinese fleet of carriers and their air wings utilize a host of supporting technologies that must be further modernized and then integrated into a cohesive whole.

China still has a lot of catching-up to do in key aspects including airborne early warning and control planes, a crucial capability allowing carriers to extend radar coverage and coordinate operations further away from China’s littoral waters.

Roblin points out in a column in The National Interest that none of China’s bulky AEW planes is in the same league as the US Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye, a twin-engine turboprop plane carrying a 7.3-meter-diameter “pizza dish” radar dome. The Hawkeye was first introduced in the 1960s, and each US Navy carrier air wing has a squadron of four or five of them.

The plane also features a landing-gear attachment for catapult-assisted takeoff and a tail hook for an arrested landing on the flight deck of a US carrier.

Without powerful AEW aircraft and visibility for approaching enemy stealth fighters and vessels, it could require only a few missile or torpedo hits to start an explosive chain reaction, since a carrier is always crammed full of jet fuel and bombs, Roblin noted.

The Chinese carriers, by comparison, each have three Z-18J Bat helicopters with a retractable rotating active electronically scanned array radar, with much less speed and endurance than the Hawkeye.

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The KJ-600 AEW plane. Photo: Weibo
China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet. Photo: Reuters
China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet. Photo: Reuters

However, reports over recent years have suggested that the People’s Liberation Army has been working on a new AEW plane known as the KJ-600, retrofitted from the Y-7 transport plane. The new plane resembles the Hawkeye with a circular radar dome on the top as well as folding wings for easier carrier stowage.

China could also mimic and develop necessary radar and datalink technologies – both areas in which China is fairly advanced – and then the KJ-600 and other Chinese AEW aircraft could eventually pose a greater threat to stealth fighters operated by its foes.

Nonetheless, it still seems unlikely that the KJ-600 would be able to take off from the ski-jump-style deck of the Liaoning or its sister ship.

Roblin is of the view that the PLA Navy could be looking ahead to deploying the radar planes on the future Type 002 flattops currently under construction.

These more advanced future carriers could be equipped with steam catapults and barrier-assisted recovery and even electromagnetic catapults.

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