To outfit its new aircraft carrier Shi Lang, due to enter service this year or next, the Chinese navy is going to need a balanced air wing mixing aircraft optimized for aerial combat, bombing, anti-submarine warfare, rescue, resupply and, finally, airborne radar early warning (AEW) and electronic warfare.
The latter is one of the most sophisticated and difficult to master aerial missions—and one of the most important. Without a powerful airborne radar and radar detectors Shi Lang and her J-15 and J-10 fighters will be essentially blind, capable of seeing only as far as their own radars allow. For the ship, the horizon restricts radar range. The fighters are constrained by the size of their radomes, which place hard limits on the abilities of an aerial radar.
China has always known it needed a carrier-borne AEW aircraft, but until this month, it seemed Beijing was considering only the most conservative options. A single leaked photo changed all that.
The world's major navies take different approaches to AEW. Only the world's top carrier operators, the Americans and French, use large, fixed-wing planes: the US-built E-2 Hawkeye. Smaller navies, such as Russia's, Italy's and Britain's, use helicopters carrying radars in underslung or ramp-mounted fixtures. The E-2 is bigger and higher-flying than any helicopter, so can see farther with its radar—reportedly up to 400 miles for the latest E-2D just entering US Navy service.
The first reports of Chinese naval AEW development focused on rumours regarding Russian-made Ka-31 choppers or a modified version of the Chinese Z-8 helicopter. In April this year, a Z-8 was photographed in the gray paintjob of the People's Liberation Army Navy—a strong indication the PLAN had picked that chopper over its Russian rival.
But another photo posted to Chinese forums in May hinted at a fixed-wing naval AEW aircraft. The grainy photo, reportedly taken at Xian, seems to show a plane with a distinctive dome-shaped radar housing atop its fuselage.
The Chinese air force has long experimented with large cargo planes modified for AEW, and today is testing several Il-76 freighters with top-mounted, round radomes, as well as a medium-size Y-8 cargo plane with a file-shaped radome. Neither design would fit on Shi Lang.
But a plane similar in dimensions to the 23-ton E-2 just might. Indeed, the alleged Chinese naval AEW plane could be an unauthorized copy of the E-2, as both planes share a rare tail configuration with four vertical stabilizers.
Of course, the E-2's four-tail arrangement is dictated by the odd airflow around the large radome. If the Chinese plane's radome is similarly obstructive, the tail layout would naturally echo the E-2's, without the PLAN aircraft necessarily being a direct copy.
In any event, if the Xian photo indeed shows a naval radar plane, then Shi Lang will be a much more capable vessel than originally projected.