China's New Plane Sure Looks Like an American Hawkeye Knockoff

The KJ-600 will take the country’s carrier fleet to the next level. We’ve seen it before.

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  • China's KJ-600 AEW&C plane reportedly made its first flight on August 29.
  • The plane is designed to act as a flying radar station, detecting enemy missiles, ships, and aircraft.
  • AEW planes also act as flying quarterbacks, coordinating offensive and defensive air missions.

    China’s latest carrier aircraft may not be a fighter, but it will be the most important plane in the fleet. The new KJ-600 airborne early warning and control aircraft, which flew for this first time this weekend, will act as the unblinking eye of the fleet, detecting enemy threats far in advance and allowing a carrier to send its jets where they’re needed the most.

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    An aircraft carrier is a powerful, flexible air power platform, capable of both offensive and defensive missions thousands of miles from home. One of the biggest problems for carriers, however, is how to effectively utilize that air power. A carrier’s built-in radar can only see so far, from a few hundred miles at high altitude to two dozen miles or less at sea level.

    During World War II, carrier task force commanders were often forced to make informed guesses where the enemy was, sometimes sending fighter patrols and bomber flights on wild goose chases that failed to make contact with the enemy.

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    A French Navy E-2 Hawkeye assigned to the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, 2020.
    MARIO GOLDMANGetty Images

    The invention of the airborne early warning and control plane (AEW&C) solved that problem. AEW&C planes are large, unarmed aircraft that mount a powerful search radar on pylons above the fuselage. Two to three radar operators sit in the back of the plane, analyzing radar returns, keeping track of friendly and enemy forces, and vectoring friendly fighters and attack jets toward enemy forces. Today, the U.S. and French navies fly the E-2 Hawkeye, a proven platform in service since the 1960s.

    The AEW&C’s importance in both offensive and defensive roles keeps planes and their crews busy. In the offense, a plane like the KJ-600 would fly alongside a flight of carrier-based fighters flying an anti-ship or strike mission against targets on the ground. The AEW&C plane would spot incoming enemy fighters, vectoring fighter escorts to intercept them before they could interfere with the mission. The KJ-600 could analyze multiple flights of enemy jets and determine the best way to deal with them.

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    Defense is where the KJ-600 will shine. An AEW&C plane can extend a carrier’s threat detection range by several hundred more miles simply by flying ahead of the carrier. The AEW&C plane’s ability to fly high and detect low-flying targets ensures it will spot sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles at far greater ranges than the 20 or so miles a ship-based radar will detect it.

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    One particular new capability is the U.S. Navy’s ability to use its E-2D Hawkeye aircraft to provide cueing data to cruisers and destroyers, allowing them to launch air defense missiles like the SM-6 at anti-ship missiles, ships, crewed and uncrewed aircraft, and even incoming ballistic missiles.

    KJ-600 will be a familiar sight to aviation enthusiasts. Grainy photographs out of China depict a plane that is practically identical to the E-2 Hawkeye, from the shape of the aircraft to the radome mounted on top. The plane was developed by the Xi’an Aircraft Company, which also built China’s Y-20 heavy transport airplane. According to Jane’s, the KJ-600 was spotted in June and August at the Chinese Flight Test Establishment at Xian Yanliang.

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    The KJ-600 won’t fly from China’s existing aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, as both carriers use a ski jump to get their Shenyang J-15 “Flying Shark” fighter jets airborne. Prop-powered planes like the E-2D and KJ-600 can’t generate enough ready power to take off using a ski jump.

    Instead, China’s new plane will operate from the new Type 003 carrier, currently under construction at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, and future carriers. Type 003 will be the first Chinese carrier with a catapult system that can launch even large propeller-driven aircraft like the KJ-600 into the air.

    The People’s Liberation Army Navy is advancing rapidly in building up a modern carrier capability, and a new airborne early warning and control airplane will take Chinese naval aviation to the next level. Aircraft like the KJ-600 show China is serious about building a fleet to rival the mighty U.S. Navy—at least in the Pacific, and possibly beyond.

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