China 's Eyies In The Sky: Special Report

The recent deployment of China's first four indigenous KJ-2000 AWACSaircraft marks an important milestone in the PLA Air Force’s long marchfrom being a ‘numbers intensive’ low technology force, to a much moremodern high technology one.

More fundamentally, though, the AWACS (Airborne Warning and ControlSystem) extends China's deep and broad network of air defence CommandControl Communications Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (C3ISR)systems into a key airborne area. In doing so, China is now acquiringthe radar and passive early warning and air defence command, controland communications it needs to counter foreign fighters and cruisemissiles.

Yet despite the fact that this system employs radar technology twogenerations ahead of that used by the US Air Force’s E-3CAWACS—generally seen as a benchmark by the rest of the world—thedeployment of China’s new aircraft elicited almost no response fromWashington.

Airborne C3ISR systems such as AWACS aircraft typically operate asextensions to ground-based networks of air defence radar systems anddefensive Surface to Air Missile (SAM) batteries, providing forwardcoverage against targets that are hidden from ground-based sensors by‘terrain shadowing’ or the earth’s curvature. Such targets can below-flying combat aircraft, but in an increasing number of cases arelikely to be low-flying cruise missiles.

So, how important a step is this new system for China? To betterunderstand the implications, it’s useful to look at the evolution ofChina's air defence capabilities more generally.

During the 1950s, the Soviets exported a range of air defenceequipment to China, much of which reflected what was thenstate-of-the-art Soviet radar technology. But the Khrushchev-eratensions put an end to that, and over time China proceeded to reverseengineer all of these Soviet designs.

By the 1970s, China was producing clones or derivatives of most ofthis equipment, especially ‘acquisition’ radars designed to search foraircraft that could then be targeted by SAM batteries or interceptoraircraft. This area of military technology was so valued by the PLAthat in 1969 it had initiated development of an indigenous AWACS—theKJ-1. This radar design was built into a 1950s Tupolev Tu-4 Bullaircraft which itself was a reverse engineered Boeing B-29Superfortress. This project was repeatedly disrupted by the unstablepolitical environment, and never produced an operational capability.Still, the efforts highlight the PLA’s long-standing interest in havingcredible airborne C3ISR.

By the end of the Cold War, the PLA hadbuilt up a large inventory of mostly reverse engineered Soviet airdefence radars, and a good number of indigenous designs, many of whichwere very different from their Western and Soviet cousins. These wereprimarily used to support the large fleet of reverse engineeredfighters that included the J-6 (MiG-19), the indigenous J-8 Finbackinterceptor aircraft, and a large inventory of HQ-1 and HQ-2 GuidelineSAM batteries. Chinese personnel also reverse engineered and thenimproved on radars such as the Soviet P-12 Spoon Rest, as well asdeveloping some unique indigenous ones such as the YJ-14 Great Wall.

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

But the post Cold War period saw unprecedented activity andinvestment in air defence equipment as well as the supporting C3infrastructure. The full extent of this investment remains unclear, asdisclosures are infrequent and often incomplete, meaning researchersmust often resort to satellite imagery—or even military paradeimagery—and then make a best guess about supporting capabilities basedon what’s required to support a particular air defence weapon system.

While China procured large numbers of Russian long rangeS-300PMU/PMU1/PMU2 / SA-10/20 SAM batteries and supporting radarequipment, primary search radars used for air defence were mostlydesigned and built in China.

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

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

Meanwhile, passive detection systems are also being developed, whichare intended to be able to identify and locate hostile aircraft by‘sniffing’ their radar and radio emissions. The recently revealed CETCDWL002 emitter locating system, for example, is modelled on the potentCzech developed
Tamara/Vera/Borap series, but with one importantimprovement—the ability to locate a target in three dimensions,something vital for targeting air defence weapons. Like the newgeneration air defence, this new system is highly mobile and difficultto locate and destroy in combat.

In addition, the land-based sensor part of the PLA air defenceC3ISR network is being supplemented by fixed high speed fibre opticlinks that provide interconnections that are immune to electronicintelligence intercepts and radio frequency jamming. But a recent andunique addition has been the deployment of indigenous TS-504 mobiletropospheric scatter (troposcatter) communications terminals, which aremodelled on US Army equipment that was the employed by US land forcesduring the Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom Campaigns. These troposcatterterminals appear to be being used to connect mobile radars and missilebatteries to the fibre optic network, which increases their ability tosurvive air assaults, and without the cost penalties and electronicvulnerabilities of satellite links or microwave relays.

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

The much larger KJ-2000 AWACS, which also uses active phased arrayradar, 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 havethe Clinton administration block the sale, resulting in an acrimoniouswar of words. As a consequence, the Chinese made a national commitmentto build their own—resulting a decade later in the recently deployedmilestone of the KJ-2000.

All this means that China is deploying a modern, high technology airdefence system based largely on the same or more advanced basictechnologies used by the US, EU and Russia in their systems.
Once fully deployed and matured, this system will be effectivelyimpregnable to regional air forces, and largely impregnable to US navalair power, itself the victim of chronic underinvestment. Indeed, thetechnology being deployed in strength by the PLA is so sophisticatedthat only the small planned inventory of US Air Force B-2A Spirit andF-22 Raptor aircraft will be capable of confidently penetrating apost-2015 PLA air defence network.
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