Included in the Chinese Navy’s ambitious modernization and expansion program, the Xian KJ-600 radar plane was photographed for the first time at the manufacturer’s facilities in Xian-Yanliang.
The satellite image of the company Planet Labs shows the turboprop with low resolution, but sufficient to identify several similarities with the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye, of the US Navy, and which has the function of Airborne Early Warning (AEW) on board the nuclear aircraft carriers.
Like the Hawkeye, the KJ-600 has a tail with several vertical stabilizers in order not to distort the radar waves of the immense radome mounted on the fuselage. The plane, which appears to be still a prototype according to observers, can carry a rotating radar or a fixed set capable of covering 360º.
Until now, the KJ-600 had appeared in mock-up images taken in 2018 as part of an aircraft carrier built in concrete by China for training. Despite the similarity with the American E-2, the origin of the radar plane is a project from the times of the Soviet Union, the Antonov An-24, which in China was built under license as Xian Y-7.
In 2012, the Asian country adapted a transport aircraft unit for the AEW function, the JZY-01. But the KJ-600 is a more refined and smaller project in order to adapt to the deck of Chinese aircraft carriers.
Watching China’s carrier developments? The KJ-600 has finally broken cover. Check out my latest in Jane’s. pic.twitter.com/jJje8AgiPW
— Chris Biggers (@CSBiggers) August 28, 2020
Nuclear aircraft carrier
China has accelerated the aircraft carrier building program as a way to match the US maritime power and maintain its primacy in the Pacific. After launching two vessels based on Russian Kuznetsov class, the country is developing two more nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and steam catapults instead of ramps.
That is why KJ-600 is an important part of this strategy when it confers a defense system similar to the E-2. However, China is still far from the might of the U.S. Navy that operates 10 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and prepares for the debut of the new Ford-class ship.
Attempting to clone a US project is not just China’s prerogative. In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union designed the Yakovlev Yak-44, a radar plane with numerous similarities to the Hawkeye, however, it had counter-rotating propellers. With the collapse of communism, the program ended up being canceled only with a finished mockup.