15 November 2016

China’s Growing Fleet of SIGINT/EW Aircraft

China has developed and built several new EW (Electronic Warfare) aircraft. While some of these use twin-engine civilian aircraft most use the Chinese equivalent of the American C-130. The latest version of this is the Y-9, which will supplement and replace earlier Y-8 models. As electronic warfare aircraft these are referred to as Y-8G and Y-9G. The first three of the new ones went to the navy as Y-9G ELINT (electronic intelligence.) There are over 20 Y-8G EW aircraft in service and the Y-9G will supplement the Y-8Gs and eventually replace them.

The Chinese Air Force and Navy have about 30 EW aircraft based on the Y-8 and Y-9 aircraft. There are at least eleven used for ELINT aircraft. This includes a growing number of Y-8GX5 AWACS (airborne early warning and control aircraft). Also known as KJ-200, these aircraft are being put to work in the South China Sea and off the coasts.

Chinese EW aircraft are nearly as numerous as the American force but have, for the moment, less capable electronics, less experienced crews and aircraft that, while similar to the C-130, are not as reliable. All these problems are slowly being solved. While details of Chinese EW electronics are kept secret, the development details of their transport aircraft tend to be public.

For example, China began flight testing of its new Y-9 transport in 2011 and it entered service in 2012. The Y-9 design effort began in 2001, but the manufacturer ran into personnel and quality control problems, and put the effort on hold after a few years. It was revived in 2009 and soon completed. The Y-9 is a 77 ton, Chinese designed, aircraft that is powered by four turboprops. It can carry 25 tons (or nine 108x88 inch/2.7x2.3 meter pallets, or 132 paratroopers.) It has a crew of four, a cruise speed of 650 kilometers an hour, and has a max ferry range of 7,800 kilometers.

The Y-9 is basically a stretched version of the 61 ton Y-8F-200, which is, in turn, a Chinese copy, and upgrade, of the Russian An-12. Like the U.S. C-130, the An-12 was developed in the 1950s, and is still used by civilian cargo haulers all over the world. Some 1,200 An-12s were built (between 1957 and 1973), compared to about a hundred 100 Y-8s (which began production in 1981). Over 2,400 C-130s have been built so far.

China wants to reduce its dependence on Russia for transport aircraft, and has noted the success of the latest version of the C-130, the C-130J (a 79 ton aircraft with a crew of three, that can carry 33 tons of cargo, 8 pallets or 92 paratroopers.) The C-130J has a cruise speed of 644 kilometers an hour and max ferry range of 7,400 kilometers. China has operated the civilian version of the C-130 in the past, thus there are Chinese aeronautical experts familiar with the design. For the last half century, few aircraft designs have been wholly original. The best ones took past ideas and recombined them into new designs, using new technology, to produce better aircraft.

Many Western EW aircraft are four-engine jets. Thus the American E-3 AWACS is based on the Boeing 707 airliner. China uses the Russian IL-76 military transport for this sort of thing and recently introduced the Y-20 which is very similar to the American C-17. China may not need the Y-20 for EW missions because the trend is towards smaller (two engine jet transports like the 737) aircraft or large UAVs. That’s because the electronics and other sensors have been getting smaller and cheaper which means you don’t need such a large manned aircraft.

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