November 5, 2013: Taiwan recently admitted that it had suffered some serious damage when it discovered that one of its air force officers (identified only as “Major Hao”) sold many technical details of the new E-2K AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft to China. Hao did it for money, and Taiwanese counterintelligence found over a dozen other Chinese intel operatives during the investigation that uncovered the E-2K leaks. Since the E-2K contains mostly American technology and is based on the E-2C use on American aircraft carriers, this intelligence disaster is going to cost America a lot as well. Since China now knows the details of how the E-2 electronics work, they can develop better ways to deceive and disrupt E-2 operations.
Earlier this year Taiwan received the last two of four E-2K aircraft from the U.S., where they have been sent for upgrading to the E-2C 2000 standard. The first two E-2Ks were sent in 2009. The upgrade cost about $63 million per aircraft. Taiwan bought two E-2Ks new in 2006 as well.
The Taiwanese E-2K is very similar to the American E-2C, which is being replaced with a newer mode. In 2010 the U.S. Navy received its first E-2D aircraft. This is the latest version of the E-2 Hawkeye radar aircraft that was originally introduced in 1964. The two engine, 24 ton E-2 was never produced in large quantities (fewer than a hundred are in use). Six years ago the E-2 fleet reached a milestone of a million flight hours.
The current E-2C models began entering service in the 1970s, and are difficult to maintain because of their age. The E-2s always contained a large quantity of the most modern, and failure prone, electronics. Operating mostly off carriers, and thus constantly exposed to corrosive, salty ocean air, the aircraft takes a beating. The five man crew is mostly concerned with using the large radar carried atop the aircraft and keeping track of friendly and hostile aircraft and missiles up to 400 kilometers away.
The aircraft can stay in the air for four-six hours at a time and cruises at 450 kilometers an hour. Currently, the three "system operators" use large flat screen displays and many gigabytes of disk storage each (for capturing and comparing data) to operate as a sea-going AWACS. It was the navy that developed the AWACS concept at the end of World War II, using Avenger light bombers equipped with radar to control large carrier strikes.
Each American aircraft carrier has four E-2s, and the U.S. Navy has a total fleet of about seventy E-2s. There are several dozen in service in other countries but only France also operates them from carriers. Everyone else uses land based E-2s. About half the E-2s ever built are still flying, and the United States expects to keep using them (as the E-2D) into the 2020s. After that, an unmanned aircraft will probably replace the E-2.
The E-2C 2000 entered service in 2007, as an interim upgrade before the E-2D (with new engines, new phased array radar, new electronics, and many other improvements) arrived. Development and manufacturing of 75 E-2Ds for the U.S. Navy cost about $206 million per aircraft. The E-2D has longer range and more accurate radar, as well as much more efficient and reliable computer systems. Many of the current E-2Cs will get some of the electronics improvements, depending on how much money is available. The first carrier to be equipped with E-2Ds won't happen until 2014-15. In the meantime, individual E-2Ds will operate from carriers, to work out any remaining bugs and unforeseen problems.
The U.S. usually does not export the latest versions of electronic equipment. Thus the Taiwan leak means the older American E-2C is compromised but not (to a great extent) the most recent E-2D model. But the Taiwanese are justifiably afraid that there will be even more reluctance by the United States to sell Taiwan the latest versions of anything because of the successful Chinese espionage efforts in Taiwan. Then again, maybe not. That’s because that espionage works both ways. The Taiwanese have been very successful using the same tactics (offering cash or using blackmail and other threats) against the Chinese. While the American and Taiwanese tech is more valuable (because it is more advanced) it’s useful to know the details of the best stuff the Chinese have.