China’s Indigenous AWACS Projects : “FAR VISION” for the Dragon

By : Group Capt Ravinder Singh Chhatwal (retd.) / Vayu

In modern air warfare, the monitoring of real time enemy air activity is vital.The AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) provides the air force commander an ability to monitor enemy air activity from low to high levels, deep inside hostile territory. This is essentially having an ADDC (Air Defence Direction Centre) in the air with a clear view of what is happening at long distances, thus meeting the age old requirement of commanders to know what is happening on “other side of the hill”.Such early warning from an AWACS gives definite advantage to the commander in air battle management and guiding of friendly fighters to intercept enemy aircraft well in time before the weapon release line.

The AWACS has changed the way war is conducted. As a force multiplier, AWACS aircraft have become so critical in modern war that the side which does not have them will suffer from huge asymmetry right from the preparatory stage to start of a shooting war.

The Chinese realised the importance of such platforms and started work on their own AWACS in 1969, and after long years of effort, developed their own indigenous fleet of AWACS/AEW aircraft consisting of four Kong Jing-2000 (KJ-2000), four KJ-200 and two KJ-500 with the PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force). The PLA Navy (PLAN) has its own feet of 14 AEW&C aircraft on the Y-8/y-9 platform. In addition, China has inducted a new indigenous heavy transport aircraft, Y-20, and while it has not yet been announced, it can be speculated that this will become the platform for future AWACS to replace the KJ-2000. This article traces the history and development of China’s AWACS/AEW projects and briefy discusses AWACS limitations for PLAAF against the IAF.

⏩ First Attempts

China’s first attempt to develop an indigenous AWACS goes back to 1969.This project, called the Kong Jing-1 (KJ-1), was undertaken on a 1950s-designed Soviet Tu-4 piston-engined bomber (B-29 copy). The project was not successful since China did not have the technology, at that time, to overcome ground clutter problems. In airborne radar, the signal return from ground echoes is stronger than the target signal and the radar system must be designed to identify targets through such clutter. The Chinese were unable to do this and consequently the project was abandoned.Since then, China had been, trying to purchase–or develop–an airborne warning and control capability.

The KJ-1 was China’s first attempt to make an AWACS, based on the Soviet Tu-4 platform, in 1969

In the 1970s, relations between China and USA improved with the express intention of jointly opposing the then Soviet Union as their common enemy. Taking advantage of this situation, China began exploring the
purchase of E-3A Sentry AWACS from USA which subject was taken up by the Chinese during President Reagan’s visit to China in
1984 but nothing came off it. The Chinese
having failed in their attempts to get E-3A,
looked for AWACS from Russia, UK and Israel. The Russian system with an Il-76 airframe was rejected as its radar performance did not meet their requirements.

The Chinese also negotiated with a number of Western firms to jointly produce an
indigenous AWACS. These were Westinghouse (USA), Marconi (UK), Thorn-EMI (UK), and Dornier GmbH (the latter being the main integrator for the then NATO AWACS programme) but there was no fruitful outcome. There was limited success with the development of a maritime AEW by China’s Harbin Aircraft
Corporation which developed an AEW prototype by installing the ThornEMI Skymaster radar on the Y-12 Turbo Panda. A small number of these aircraft were used for maritime surveillance, but did not qualify as an AWACS. The Chinese wanted to purchase the Nimrod AEW from Britain but this project was cancelled. Thus, being left with little choice, the Chinese decided to develop an AWACS in collaboration with Israel.

In 1992, China and Israel signed an initial
agreement for joint development of such an AWACS. After four years, in 1996, both sides signed an official contract which defined cooperation in development of an AWACS based on the Il-76 platform. Initially, Israel provided modifed Phalcon
radar with antennas mounted on the aircraft fuselage and nose dome. However, this configuration could only provide 260°
coverage which was not acceptable to the
Chinese. The Chinese wanted full 360° coverage and suggested stationary radome on top of the fuselage with phased array planar antenna technology.

At this time, the Israeli plan to sell such AWACS technology ran into rough weather in 2000 when the Americans forced the Israelis to cancel the programme. The Americans did not want AWACS technology to fall in the hands of the Chinese, and saw this deal as a threat to Taiwan and to US interests in the region.

The Chinese were obviously angered with this development but even more determined to have an AWACS. The cancellation of the deal speeded up China’s indigenous efforts. Although the Israelis had removed all the Phalcon radar components, the Chinese still managed to get some of the technology, including the T/R (transmit/receive) module and secondly the production process for manufacturing the composite material
radome with proper specifications to control the quality. Israel certainly helped China to design the radar structure, which knowledge, it seems, enabled the Chinese to have developed the AWACS in short time frame.

According to Wang Xiaomo, Executive Vice President of China Academy of Electronics and Information Technology and a leading designer of China’s AWACS project, it was “only fve years to manufacture China’s own AEW&C system.” The Chinese also overcame other technological challenges in the development phase like design of electromagnetic compatibility to avoid radio interference with other systems in the aircraft, data link with ground stations and target pick up in dense clutter environment over mountainous-terrain.

⏩ The Kong Jing KJ-2000.

In November 2003, China produced their frst AWACS radar on the Il-76 platform, the aircraft called the Kong Jing-2000 (KJ-2000) which entered service with PLAAF in 2007. The Chinese AWACS uses active electronically scanned array (AESA) technology which is more advanced than America’s and Russia’s AWACS. The radar on the American E-3C and Russian Beriev A-50U carry out 360 degree azimuth scanning using older technology by mechanically rotating the antenna. On the
other hand, in the KJ-2000 there is no rotating antenna. The scanning in azimuth and elevation is done electronically. Three flat aerials are mounted in the radome on top of the fuselage in an equilateral triangle. Each aerial electronically scans
120 degrees, thus covering full 360 degrees in azimuth. While not many details of the KJ-2000 are available, the radar can be expected to have a maximum detection range of 400 km.

China’s KJ-2000 AWACS, on an Il-76 platform. Note the triangle drawn on the lower side of the rotodome indicating the three sided planar array antenna inside. (Photo:

The Il-76 platform was chosen because Western countries were not willing to provide any platform and no comparable indigenous aircraft was available. As per Dr Wang Xiaomo, procuring additional Il-76 platforms also became a problem and, in an interview said, “Russia doesn’t want to sell China Il-76 after the birth of KJ-2000.”

Thus the KJ-2000 programme ran into delays and at present only four have entered service in PLAAF. To overcome these problems, Chinese developed another smaller version of the AWACS called KJ200, based on the Y-8 (Chinese copy of Russian An-12) platform.

⏩ The KJ-200

The KJ-200 with its balance beam-like radar on the dorsal fully of the Yun-8 airframe is a smaller AEW system which supplements the larger AWACS. The planar antenna on the fuselage is dual side linear-shape active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar similar to the Swedish Ericsson PS-890 Erieye. This shape of the antenna cannot provide coverage in front, over the nose or in the rear, but will provide broadside 120° coverage on each side. The limitation of 120°coverage is because the highest value, which can be achieved for the Field of View (FOV) of a planar phased
array antenna, is 120°, which limitation is with the Erieye as well.

China’s KJ-200 AEW based on Y-8 platform

The KJ-200 project was started in 2005 but received a major setback in 2006 when it crashed in Guangde County, in Anhui province of China, killing all 40 personnel, on board. One of the worst disasters in the history of PLAAF but this did not deter the Chinese from continuing development work in this feld. The KJ-200 finally made its debut in 2009 and was then inducted in the PLAAF and PLAN.

⏩ The KJ-500 :

The KJ-500 is based on China’s Y-9 transport aircraft, manufactured by Shaanxi Aircraft Company. The Y-9, which is an improved version of the Y-8, is a four engined turboprop powered by improved Chinese WJ-6C turboprop engines with
a maximum level speed of 660 kmph and cruising speed of 550 kmph. It has more advanced avionics and has a glass cockpit.
There is no rotating antenna in the KJ500,
however the Chinese have claimed that KJ-500 has a phased array antenna with AESA technology similar to the KJ2000 AWACS. The scanning in azimuth and elevation is done electronically as in the KJ-2000. Since the Y-9 is a turboprop aircraft, its cruising altitude is lower than the jet engined KJ-2000. The KJ-500 looks similar to the ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle AEW&C aircraft which China exported to Pakistan Air Force in 2011. The Chinese have not revealed much about the KJ-500 but its maximum detection range can be estimated to be around 300 km.

China has developed another AWACS, the KJ-500, intended to replace the KJ-200 AEW

⏩ The ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle

The ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle is based on a Y-8F600 airframe and built by Shaanxi Aircraft Corporation. The radar and on board systems were developed by China Electronics Technology Corporation (CETC). In 2008, the Pakistan Air Force signed a contract with China for four ZDK03 AEW&C systems to be built as per specifications and requirements of the PAF. The first aircraft was rolled out for testing in November 2010 and delivery of the frst aircraft was in October 2011. The ZDK-03 radar has an electronically steered antenna based on the KJ-2000 radar which electronically scans the airspace 360 degrees in azimuth. The radar antenna is installed in a radome mounted on the dorsal side of the airframe. The ZDK-03’s radar performance is expected to be better than that on the KJ-200, but since both
the ZDK-03 and KJ-200 are mounted on
turboprop aircraft, are likely to operate at lower altitudes.

⏩ An Analysis :

Against the PLAAF’s ten AWACS/AEW aircraft, the IAF has three A.50 (‘Phalcon’) AWACS with two more on order. In addition the IAF inducted one Embraer EMB-145 AEW&C in February 2017 and has two more in the offing. The rectangular dual side airborne radar on this aircraft has been developed indigenously by the DRDO and is similar to China’s KJ-200.

Like the Chinese KJ-2000, IAF AWACS are also based on the Il-76/A50EI airframe but the Phalcon radar is from Israel. The airborne radar in IAF and Chinese AWACS is of similar design both being active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars. Both the PLAAF and IAF will face AWACS
performance limitations in the high mountains since undulations in the terrain will create detection problems for aircraft masked behind hills. The laws of physics are universally applicable and requirement of line-of-sight conditions has to be met for radar pick up.

In this scenario, the PLAAF AWACS aircraft will have to get airborne from air bases at lower heights, which are far from the India-China border, which will reduce their time on station. The AWACS will operate at least 150 km from the border in own territory for safety so that it can slide back and safely when under threat from IAF fghters. Another limitation of deploying the AWACS in the mountains is that because of terrain masking, AWACS would not pick up any attackers heading towards it. The attackers can thus easily plan for a sneak attack taking advantage of hill shadows in the area.

⏩ China’s Future AWACS Plans :

China certainly has major long term plans for its future AWACS, which are going to be cost competitive since major development work has already been done. Dr Wang states that the “KJ-2000 costs billions of RMB and some new systems will require even more…” Being a large country, China will need more AEW&C systems. We can
develop lots of variants or upgraded version from present systems.” With such competitive pricing, China will surely also capture the export market for an AWACS. Many countries which are deterred by the high costs and political strings attached to an American or European AWACS – indeed or a Russian or Israeli system – may find the competitive Chinese option.

China’s Y-20 heavy transport aircraft during the flying display at Zhuhai Air Show in November 2014

China’s other plans are to develop conformal phased array airborne radar, which will be a major leap forward in advanced technologies for this ambitious nation. China now has a new heavy transport aircraft, the immensely more capable Y-20, recently inducted in the PLAAF in June 2016. Once these aircraft are available in sufficient numbers, they could certainly also be developed as an AWACS platform. Designed and built by Xian Aircraft Corporation (XAC), the Y-20 first flew in January 2013 and was on public display during the Zhuhai Air Show in-2014. Y-20 is powered by four Russian Saturn D-30KP2 turbofan engines (same engine as on the Il-76), and has a maximum payload capacity of 66 which places it between the larger Boeing C-17 Globemaster (77t) and the Il-76 (40t). Wen Wei Po, a Chinese military analyst, has said “China’s air force needs at least 100 large transport aircraft of the Y-20 class to enhance its global power projection ability. Another 90 are expected to be modifed into tanker aircraft, electronic warfare aircraft and early warning and control aircraft.” Another report by China’s NDU (National Defence University) has recommended a massive feet of 400 Y-20s for the PLAAF which will include variants for various roles. In the coming years, the Y-20 will certainly give a major boost for the PLAAF’s strategic and early warning capabilities.

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