Features | Security | East Asia

China’s Eyes in the Skies

The PLA is in the process of creating an almost impregnable air defence system for China. Washington should take note.

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.

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.

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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.

By the end of the Cold War, the PLA had built up a large inventory of mostly reverse engineered Soviet air defence radars, and a good number of indigenous designs, many of which were very different from their Western and Soviet cousins. These were primarily used to support the large fleet of reverse engineered fighters that included the J-6 (MiG-19), the indigenous J-8 Finback interceptor aircraft, and a large inventory of HQ-1 and HQ-2 Guideline SAM batteries. Chinese personnel also reverse engineered and then improved on radars such as the Soviet P-12 Spoon Rest, as well as developing some unique indigenous ones such as the YJ-14 Great Wall.

During this period, the PLA air defence system would have been unable to stop either US combat aircraft or Soviet combat aircraft in high intensity conflict (and indeed would find even smaller regional air forces to be a major challenge).

But the post Cold War period saw unprecedented activity and investment in air defence equipment as well as the supporting C3 infrastructure. The full extent of this investment remains unclear, as disclosures are infrequent and often incomplete, meaning researchers must often resort to satellite imagery—or even military parade imagery—and then make a best guess about supporting capabilities based on what’s required to support a particular air defence weapon system.

While China procured large numbers of Russian long range S-300PMU/PMU1/PMU2 / SA-10/20 SAM batteries and supporting radar equipment, primary search radars used for air defence were mostly designed and built in China.

During the 1990s the PLA initiated the development of a wide range of mostly highly mobile and survivable air defence radars, some of which were built to support the national air defence network, but many of which were also developed to provide air defences for army land force manoeuvre formations.

After 2000, most of these indigenous air defence radars appeared on the global market, with exports in recent years most notably going to Latin America (radars such as the JL-3D are technologically similar to those currently used by US, EU and Russian air defences—indeed, in many instances they’re variations of foreign types, including a number of Russian ‘counter-stealth’ radars).  

Meanwhile, passive detection systems are also being developed, which are intended to be able to identify and locate hostile aircraft by ‘sniffing’ their radar and radio emissions. The recently revealed CETC DWL002 emitter locating system, for example, is modelled on the potent Czech developed Tamara/Vera/Borap series, but with one important improvement—the ability to locate a target in three dimensions, something vital for targeting air defence weapons. Like the new generation air defence, this new system is highly mobile and difficult to locate and destroy in combat.

In addition, the land-based sensor part of the PLA air defence C3ISR network is being supplemented by fixed high speed fibre optic links that provide interconnections that are immune to electronic intelligence intercepts and radio frequency jamming. But a recent and unique addition has been the deployment of indigenous TS-504 mobile tropospheric scatter (troposcatter) communications terminals, which are modelled on US Army equipment that was the employed by US land forces during the Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom Campaigns. These troposcatter terminals appear to be being used to connect mobile radars and missile batteries to the fibre optic network, which increases their ability to survive air assaults, and without the cost penalties and electronic vulnerabilities of satellite links or microwave relays.

The airborne C3ISR segment has also seen investment, with three concurrent programmes to develop AWACS/AEW&C capabilities. Following the abortive KJ-1 effort, the PLA invested in developing a conventional system carried by the Y-8. This system was supplanted by the KJ-200, which uses electronically steered active phased array radar technology that’s two generations ahead of the mechanically steered technology used by the US.

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The much larger KJ-2000 AWACS, which also uses active phased array radar, is directly modeled on Israel’s A-50I and Elta Phalcon radar. The PLA had actually negotiated the purchase of the A-50I, only to have the Clinton administration block the sale, resulting in an acrimonious war of words. As a consequence, the Chinese made a national commitment to build their own—resulting a decade later in the recently deployed milestone of the KJ-2000.

All this means that China is deploying a modern, high technology air defence system based largely on the same or more advanced basic technologies used by the US, EU and Russia in their systems.

Once fully deployed and matured, this system will be effectively impregnable to regional air forces, and largely impregnable to US naval air power, itself the victim of chronic underinvestment. Indeed, the technology being deployed in strength by the PLA is so sophisticated that only the small planned inventory of US Air Force B-2A Spirit and F-22 Raptor aircraft will be capable of confidently penetrating a post-2015 PLA air defence network.

Washington, meanwhile, has yet to appreciate the long-term strategic implications of this developing West Pacific environment.