China’s latest special mission aircraft

CHINA

Airborne early warning KJ-500 30078 at Zhuhai in 2018. The fixed rotodome contains three active electronically scanned arrays arranged in a triangular configuration.
All images Chinese internet

FOR MANY years, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and Naval Aviation have operated specialised versions of the Y-8 and more recently the Y-9. Most remain unknown to the public because of the covert nature of their missions. More recently, several new types have entered service in increasing numbers, and with more information available.

The first special-mission version of the Y-8 was introduced in 1983 as the Y-8X (X for Xun or surveillance). The type was developed by the Shaanxi Aircraft Company (now Shaanxi Aircraft Industry Corporation, part of the Xi’an Aircraft Corporation) to meet a request by the Naval Air Force for a long-range maritime surveillance aircraft.

Since the early part of this century, several dedicated variants were introduced, making the Y-8 and Y-9 series of aircraft the workhorse for special missions including electronic and signals intelligence, offensive electronic countermeasures, and even psychological warfare. Most were initiated under the so-called Gao Xin (high new) project.

Little information is available about the programme history of individual versions or their specific mission equipment. In most cases little was known about the various projects until a new series of Y-8GX-versions were first seen.

Despite sequential designations numbered from GX-1 to GX-12 they have not been seen in the same order. Adding further confusion to the already confusing sequential designation is the fact that – even if in the most modern variants clearly based on the new Y-9 transport – variants are still labelled Y-8GX and have an additional People’s Liberation Army designation in which Y-8 or Y-9 is included.

Y-8GX-9 ELINT: Y-9XZ

In October 2012 it became clear that the Y-8GX-9 (also known as the Y-9XZ) was a new psychological warfare variant based on the Y-9 platform. The aircraft is understood to have a new capability; hacking into enemy communication networks and therefore used to interrupt the internet traffic or to spread false information and create chaos through social networks by hacking into key web servers.

In operational livery, this variant has rarely been seen, but several entered PLAAF service by mid-2014 with the 20th Specialised Division replacing earlier Y-8XZs (GX-7s).

Y-8GX-10 AEW: KJ-500 and KH-500

Probably the best-known member of the New High family in service is the Y-8GX-10 or KJ-500 AEW. Under development by the SAAC since the late 2000s, this type is the next-generation medium-sized airborne and early warning and control platform.

In contrast to its predecessor, the KJ-200, the KJ-500 had its characteristic balance beam radar replaced by a more traditional fixed rotodome containing three active electronically scanned arrays arranged in a triangular configuration similar to that of the KJ-2000.

The radar is allegedly a new system designed by 38 Institute, which utilises the latest digital radar technology. During the GX- 10’s development programme, several radars and different radome shapes were evaluated on the Y-8CE testbed; in addition to the three main antennas, an additional SATCOM antenna was also integrated into the top of the rotodome.

The sub-hunting Y-8GX-6 variant is based on the Y-8F-600 Category III Platform featuring a completely pressurized cabin. Aircraft 85192 is assigned to the 9th Division.
An electronic intelligence gathering Y-8GX-9 (Y-9XZ).

This variant also has an enlarged nose and tail radomes which likely house additional radar antennas to cover the forward and rear hemisphere. The KJ-500 features two rectangular bar shaped fairings housing ELINT antennas on both sides of the rear fuselage and missile approach warning sensors fitted aft of the cabin door and forward of the tail.

Ten KJ-500s are in service within the 26th Specialised Division, and confirmed by available imagery, the Naval Air Force is operating a similar number of KJ-500Hs (also known as HJ-500s) with two Naval Air Divisions. Still in production, recent imagery from February, taken at the factory in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province showed at least six new aircraft on the flight line.

A modernised variant designated the KJ-500A has been flying equipped with an aerial refuelling probe since March 2018.

Y-8GX-11 ECM and Y-8GX-12 ELINT

Very little information is known about the latest two variants only in existence since 2014-2015; the GX-11 (also known as the Y-9G) is reportedly a new ECM variant similar to the original GX-3 with the characteristic fuselage cheeks housing antennas designed to suppress enemy radar and communications.

Based on the Y-9 platform, the GX-11 features a new chinmounted radome, and three large oval and rectangular shaped antenna panels along each side of the fuselage. Two plate antennas are installed on the vertical tailfin complemented by an array of blade antennas under the fuselage, and a small semi-spherical antenna underneath the wingtip.

Reportedly, two GX-11s were in service and operational with the 20th Specialised Division. The most recent variant was first seen in April 2018 operating with the CFTE at Xi’an-Yanliang wearing the serial number 745.

Externally similar to the Y-9JZ (GX-8) flown by the Naval Air Force, this new variant has, to date, been referred to as the Y-8GX-12. It is rumoured to be a new ELINT-type for the PLAAF, which makes sense based on its nose configuration and two large rectangular-shaped antenna arrays fitted on both sides of its rear fuselage. Numerous other antennas are installed all over the fuselage, in the tail cone and on top of the vertical tail fin. Additionally, a SATCOM antenna is fitted on top of the mid-fuselage.

If the reported role is correct, the GX-12 may be the replacement type for the Y-8CB (GX-1) and may eventually be designated as Y-9DZ. The latest image of the factory airfield confirmed one GX-12 is being prepared for the delivery.

Y-8GX-6 ASW: Y-8Q or KQ-200

An exception to the sequential designation might be the Y-8GX-6 or Y-8Q ASW; quite possibly the most important special mission variant to date. However, even if the GX-6 is introduced into Naval Air Force service in the coming years, its early sequential number reflects that the variant has been under design and development for much longer.

The Y-8Q, also known as the KQ- 200, is possibly the most eagerly awaited special mission variant for the Naval Air Force. Reportedly under development since 2007, this variant is based on the Y-8F-600 Category III Platform featuring a completely pressurized cabin. Powered by uprated WJ-6C turboprops (each rated at 5,100ehp) with JL-4 six-blade propellers, this aircraft also features small vertical stabilizers on the horizontal tail planes.

The configuration features a prominent bulbous radome housing a surface search radar, and most notably a distinctive MAD-boom. An additional (to the baseline aircraft) multi-spectral turret housing a FLIR, CCD TV camera and laser rangefinder is fitted underneath the forward fuselage.

The KQ-200 is fitted with several radar warning receivers, missile approach warning sensors and blade antennas, and two large observationwindows in the aft fuselage.

Beyond its sensor fit, the most important addition feature for its ASW role, and a first for any Y-8 family variant, is an internal weapons bay positioned forward of the main-landing gear. Its weapons payload includes depth charges, light torpedoes (up to 8 Yu-7s or new Yu-11Ks) and perhaps up to four YJ-83K anti-ship missiles carried on underwing pylons.

Four sonobuoy launch tubes are positioned on the rear fuselage, aft of the internal weapons bay.

As a dedicated long-range ASW aircraft, the KQ-200 is understood to have a range of up to 2,700 nautical miles (5,000km) and a patrol endurance of up to 10 hours. The patroller allegedly features a secure datalink in order to be capable of coordinating with future carrier battle groups to extend the layer of defence against enemy submarines and small surface ships further away from the carrier and its accompanying battle group.

Two KQ-200 prototypes were first seen in November 2011; operational evaluation began in late 2013; first series –production aircraft was delivered in April 2015, and since then the type has entered widespread service; close to a dozen are assigned to three Naval Air Divisions.

The Naval Air Force’s requirement for the KQ-200 is the largest of all the different special mission variants amounting to one dozen aircraft assigned to each Naval Theater Command.

Based on the Y-9 platform, the Y-8GX-11 features a new chin-mounted radome, and three large oval and rectangular shaped antenna panels along each side of the fuselage.