Electronic Weapons: China Climbs The AWACS Ladder

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April 6, 2015:   Less than two years after being spotted in the air for the first time the new Chinese KJ-500 AWACS (Air Warning And Control System) aircraft has entered service. The KJ-500 AWACS can track over 60 aircraft at ranges of up to 470 kilometers. The KJ-500 aircraft looks more like the American AWACS (with a round radar dome on top) but is smaller and carried by the Y-9 four engine turboprop aircraft (similar to the U.S. C-130). The KJ-200 designs used the smaller Y-8 aircraft and a long box-like radar array on top of the aircraft. The KJ-500 will supplement and eventually replace the current eleven KJ-200 (also called the KJ-2000) that has been in service since 2005. There are also four of the export model (ZDK-03) in Pakistan. Pakistan paid $300 million each for these KJ-200 variants.

China has been developing its own AWACS since the 1990s, ever since the U.S. forced Israel to back off selling China the Phalcon AWACS (because it used some American technology). China then bought some AWACS from Russia, while hustling to develop their own. The Chinese Air Force was not happy with its four IL-76 AWACS (A-50s from Russia, converted to use Chinese KJ-200 radar systems) and smaller systems carried in the Chinese made Y-8 aircraft. The Chinese claim that their phased array AWACS is similar to, and superior in some respects, to the Phalcon radar they tried to buy from the Israelis. The Chinese were to pay about the same price for each of the four Phalcon systems they sought to get from Israel that they are charging Pakistan.

The KJ-200 carries a flight crew of five and a mission (AWACS) crew of about a dozen. The KJ-500 crew is believed to be about the same size. Both aircraft can stay airborne for about seven hours per sortie. The KJ-200 radar has a range of about 300 kilometers, and the computer systems are supposed to be able to handle 5-10 fighters at a time and keep track of several dozen enemy targets. The 54 ton propeller driven Y-8 is based on the 1950s era Russian An-12 while the Y-9 is a more recent (2001) design.

The AWACS proved to be a key to victory for the United States in the 1991, 2001, and 2003 campaigns. The critical advantage here was knowing where all friendly aircraft were at all times. Directing a lot of warplanes over enemy territory has long been a problem. It was elegantly solved with the development of airborne control aircraft like the E-3. But it took over half a century to perfect this approach. The problem was first noted during World War II, when operations involving over a thousand aircraft in the air at once demonstrated how out-of-control things could get. But no technical solution was then available. That is, you could not put a radar in an aircraft powerful enough to get the big picture, the entire picture.

However, the U.S. Navy did plan to use radar equipped TBF (light bombers) Avengers to control the fighter screen protecting the fleet from Japanese suicide bombing attacks during the planned 1945 invasion of Japan. That invasion never came off and the Navy pursued the radar equipped control aircraft idea at a more leisurely pace after the war. The navy E-1 airborne early warning aircraft first flew in 1956 and entered service in 1960. While mainly used to extend the radar coverage of a naval task force, this type of aircraft also had a vital role in controlling large numbers of friendly warplanes in air battles.

The U.S. Air Force also kept working on the problem. By 1953, the Air Force was able to send propeller driven transports (EC 121 Lockheed Constellations), equipped with powerful radar and radio equipment, off the coasts of North America to watch for Russian bombers. Beginning in 1965, the first of thirty EC 121s was sent to Vietnam, where they controlled combat operations in the northern part of the country. As useful as these aircraft were, it was obvious that, with a little more technology, one could control air combat operations more thoroughly and effectively.

The ultimate solution came in the form of a four engine jet transport converted to a flying radar station and control tower. This was the E-3 AWACS, whose development began in the late 1960s. The first prototypes were flying in the late 1970s and the E-3 entered service in 1982. Flying far enough inside friendly territory to avoid enemy anti-aircraft missiles, the AWACS radar has a radar range from between 200 km (for small aircraft or cruise missiles flying close to the ground) to 600 kilometers (for large aircraft flying at high altitude). The AWACS tracks several hundred friendly and enemy aircraft at once. The AWACS acts as an airborne command center for aircraft and friendly planes are kept out of each other's way. For example, there was not a single friendly air to air collision during the 1991 Gulf war or in any subsequent operations using the E-3.

Enemy aircraft are spotted, identified, and friendly interceptors assigned to take care of the hostile planes using the E-3. One or more AWACS is used to control an air operation and each can stay up 11 hours at a time, or up to 22 hours with refueling and extra crew on board to man the equipment. Its first wartime workout, during the 1991 Gulf war, was a spectacular success, often in more ways than anticipated. For example, the use of over a hundred tankers to refuel combat aircraft would not have been possible without the AWACS being there to efficiently link tankers and aircraft needing fuel. Forming up the Wild Weasels, and coordinating their use with the bombers they escorted, was much easier using an AWACS. Just keeping track of who was who and going where would not have been possible without the AWACS. It’s this kind of AWACS capability that the Chinese are working towards. 

 


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