China Expands Fleet of KJ-500 Flying Radars: The AEW&C Platform Worries the US

The Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, in service since 2015, results from more than 25 years of Chinese efforts to develop a world-class platform. With the ability to track 100 targets simultaneously, the KJ-500 has seen rapid expansion in the past decade, raising concerns among potential adversaries of China, such as the United States.

KJ-500 Features and Advances

The KJ-500 has significant advances compared to its predecessors, such as improvements in AESA radar and data link technologies. Developed by the 38th Research Institute of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, the KJ-500’s radar houses three separate sensors in a saucer-shaped dome, which also carries a satellite communications antenna and two passive intelligence arrays.

China Expands Fleet of KJ-500 Flying Radars: The AEW&C Platform Worries the US

The aircraft is based on the four-engine Shaanxi Y-9 turboprop transport aircraft, allowing for common maintenance and relatively low operating costs compared to the Russian Il-76 airframe used to develop the earlier KJ-2000 aircraft.

KJ-500 fleet expansion

The People’s Liberation Army has purchased a larger number of KJ-500 units compared to the previous aircraft. As of early 2018, 17 KJ-500s had been fielded, and an increase in production scale that same year brought the fleet to about 28 aircraft by 2022. The upgraded variant of the KJ-500A was unveiled at Airshow China 2022 and was launched. Reported that it had begun to enter service in 2020.

The KJ-500 has become the most widely deployed AEW&C aircraft outside of the US Military, with other air forces deploying similar assets in relatively small numbers or not at all.

Collaboration with the Chengdu J-20 fighter

KJ-500 Flying Radars
J-20

The KJ-500 has gained special prominence due to its operations alongside China’s highest-profile fighter, the Chengdu J-20. It is estimated that by 2022, the J-20 fleet will have grown to around 200 aircraft. In March 2022, US Pacific Air Forces Commander Kenneth Wilsbach highlighted the important role the KJ-500 played in supporting J-20 operations.

China is the only potential US adversary with state-of-the-art AEW&C capabilities, outnumbering Russia’s aging A-50 fleet, while other countries like North Korea and Iran lack such capabilities altogether. The large scale of production and advanced capabilities of the KJ-500 make it a worrisome AEW&C platform for US and Western interests.

Strategic implications and security concerns

 

KJ-500 Flying Radars
H-20

Although the KJ-500 maintains a lower profile than assets such as H-20 bombers and J-20 fighters, its development has complemented the rapid modernization of China’s fighter fleet and has been a major cause for concern among China’s potential adversaries.¬†

The platform’s ability to enhance command and control of Chinese air assets and provide critical information in real-time represents a significant challenge for the US and other Western militaries.

The KJ-500 and its upgraded variant, the KJ-500A, are clear examples of China’s commitment to developing advanced military technologies and expanding its capabilities in the field of airborne early warning and control. As the KJ-500 fleet continues to grow and evolve, it is likely to remain a matter of concern for the United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region.