China’s Eyes in the Skies


The recent deployment of China's first four indigenous KJ-2000 AWACS aircraft marks an important milestone in the PLA Air Force’s long march from being a ‘numbers intensive’ low technology force, to a much more modern high technology one.

More fundamentally, though, the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) extends China's deep and broad network of air defence Command Control Communications Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (C3ISR) systems into a key airborne area. In doing so, China is now acquiring the radar and passive early warning and air defence command, control and communications it needs to counter foreign fighters and cruise missiles.

Yet despite the fact that this system employs radar technology two generations ahead of that used by the US Air Force’s E-3C AWACS—generally seen as a benchmark by the rest of the world—the deployment of China’s new aircraft elicited almost no response from Washington.

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Airborne C3ISR systems such as AWACS aircraft typically operate as extensions to ground-based networks of air defence radar systems and defensive Surface to Air Missile (SAM) batteries, providing forward coverage against targets that are hidden from ground-based sensors by ‘terrain shadowing’ or the earth’s curvature. Such targets can be low-flying combat aircraft, but in an increasing number of cases are likely to be low-flying cruise missiles.

So, how important a step is this new system for China? To better understand the implications, it’s useful to look at the evolution of China's air defence capabilities more generally.

During the 1950s, the Soviets exported a range of air defence equipment to China, much of which reflected what was then state-of-the-art Soviet radar technology. But the Khrushchev-era tensions put an end to that, and over time China proceeded to reverse engineer all of these Soviet designs.

By the 1970s, China was producing clones or derivatives of most of this equipment, especially ‘acquisition’ radars designed to search for aircraft that could then be targeted by SAM batteries or interceptor aircraft. This area of military technology was so valued by the PLA that in 1969 it had initiated development of an indigenous AWACS—the KJ-1. This radar design was built into a 1950s Tupolev Tu-4 Bull aircraft which itself was a reverse engineered Boeing B-29 Superfortress. This project was repeatedly disrupted by the unstable political environment, and never produced an operational capability. Still, the efforts highlight the PLA’s long-standing interest in having credible airborne C3ISR.

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