Friday, August 19, 2011
PLAN Gets Serious About Airborne Early Warning
Until recently, the idea of People's Liberation Army Navy air assets (PLANAF) making a serious contribution to coastal or fleet air defense was somewhat doubtful due to a complete deficit of airborne early warning radars (AEW). With the acquisition of three new systems PLANAF has rapidly and exponentially increased it's air defense potential.
In January of this year the first AEW systems were seen in PLANAF colors: Kamov Ka-31 AEW helos purchased from Russia. The Ka-31 (NATO: Helix) features a belly-mounted retractable radar array capable of tracking both air and sea targets. Negotiations for these aircraft were first reported in April 2006, delivery was announced by Rosoboronexport at the Zhuhai Airshow in November 2010. When first seen many observers predicted these aircraft would be a part of any future PLANAF carrier air wing, however, indigenous AEW developments bring this into question.
The day prior to the maiden cruise of the refurbished ex-Soviet carrier EX-VARYAG, a new AEW variant of the Changhe Z-8 helicopter was seen landing on the newly painted flight deck. The Z-8, itself a Chinese-produced variant of the Aerospatiale Sa-321j, has been the workhorse of PLANAF rotary-wing aviation for over two decades and has been produced in many sub-variants. The Z-8 AEW features a retractable radar array positioned below rear loading ramp door, once airborne the rotating array is lowered vertically and presumably can provide 360° coverage like the Ka-31. Photos of the prototype Z-8 AEW variant were first seen in October 2009, with the first seen in PLANAF colors in April 2011.
Now that two AEW helos have been identified in PLANAF service, it's not clear if the Ka-31s were purchased solely as a hedge against delays in the Z-8AEW program, or if they are intended to fly from destroyers or other ships smaller than EX-VARYAG perhaps in a surface warfare targeting role. What is certain is that both the mockup of the EX-VARYAG at Wuhan and the actual ship have only been seen with Z-8.
Today the first clear image was seen on the Chinese internet of a fixed wing AEW aircraft in PLANAF colors, the Y-8WH "High New 5" AEW. The Y-8W has been in PLAAF service for at least three years, and was featured in the 2009 PRC 60th Anniversary Military Parade. PLAN's new Y-8WH variant apparently uses the same KJ-200 "Balance Beam" radar as the Y-8W, presumably with some radios or other C2 avionics unique to PLAN. Although the serial number in the image is partially obliterated, enough remains to identify the aircraft as belonging to the PLANAF 1st Independent Regiment at Leiyang, a subordinate unit of PLAN's North Sea Fleet.
With these three new types PLANAF seems poised to fully exploit the fleet air defense potential of the EX-VARYAG and her expected complement of J-15 navalized Flankers, as well as provide a credible air defense capability beyond the reach of ground-based radar installations.
At this point, the only thing PLANAF "needs" is a carrier-based fixed wing AEW platform...wait...what's this? (Hint: not an E-2 Hawkeye)