An image released on Weibo last week shows what may be a model of a planned airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy’s carriers
According to IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, the model, which appeared to be a full-scale mock-up for a navalized AEW&C similar in appearance to the United States’ Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye, was spotted on China’s on-land carrier facility.
Jane’s suggests that the mock-up is “an indication that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is seeking to equip a future carrier with such aircraft.
China already operates AEW&C aircraft, most notably the KJ-2000, which flies with the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF). The PLAAF currently is thought to possess five KJ-2000 AEW&C aircraft. Beijing has other programs underway.
Jane’s analysis of the mock-up also adds that the observed E-2 Hawkeye-esque aircraft would require a catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) launch system to be effective off a carrier
This means it could not operate off the PLAN Liaoning, China’s only operational aircraft carrier, or the upcoming carrier being built by China at the Dalian shipyard — its first indigenously built aircraft carrier
Both the Liaoning and the upcoming carrier have short take-off but assisted recovery (STOBAR) launch systems with a ski-jump top.
However, as The Diplomat has discussed in the past, it is likely that China is looking to have its second indigenous carrier field a CATOBAR launch system.
The PLAN has been seen flight testing a Shenyang J-15 fighter with a nose-wheel modified for CATOBAR operations as well.
Between the J-15 variant and this AEW&C aircraft mock-up with CATOBAR-compatible features, evidence for a change in carrier launch systems in China’s carrier aviation future appears likely.
If confirmed, China’s pursuit of a carrier-based AEW&C capability wouldn’t be surprising. The PLAN is gradually increasing its expeditionary ambitions and plans to regularly operate beyond the ambit of the first island chain and China’s near seas (the Yellow, East, and South China Seas).