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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.