China tests new KJ-600 tactical airborne early warning aircraft.

In March 2024, images posted on the Chinese social media platform Weibo shed light on the KJ-600, China’s next-generation Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft, intended to be deployed from the Navy’s aircraft carriers. People’s Liberation Army (PLAN).

Inspired by the advanced capabilities of the US Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye, the KJ-600 marks a significant step in China’s naval ambitions, offering round-the-clock aerial surveillance and command and control capabilities.

Developed by the Xi’an Aircraft Company, the KJ-600 project began flight testing in autumn 2020. Equipped with turboprop engines, the aircraft features a robust design with a spacious fuselage capable of accommodating a team of four to six members, essential for extended surveillance and command missions. The most striking feature of the KJ-600 is its large dorsal radome, which likely houses a state-of-the-art AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar system.

The images unveiled show the aircraft in a gray color scheme, with a high straight wing configuration, a four-finned tail and a tricycle landing gear, features that underline China’s ambitions to enhance its maritime surveillance and command capabilities.  Despite significant progress in flight testing, crucial catapult launch and arrested recovery trials for carrier-based operations have yet to be visually confirmed.

According to satellite image analysis, the KJ-600 has a wingspan of 24.4 meters and a length of 18.4 meters, dimensions that attest to its compact design and its ability to operate effectively from aircraft carriers. Reports from late 2023 on “intensive testing” involving four to six prototypes indicate that the KJ-600 development program is in an advanced phase, potentially approaching initial production at a low pace.

With the planned integration of the KJ-600 into PLAN operations, China is set to enhance its maritime surveillance and air command capabilities, thereby strengthening its strategic position in the seas. This new generation aircraft symbolizes China’s technological progress in defense and its commitment to maintaining a robust and versatile maritime presence.

China tests new KJ-600 tactical airborne early warning aircraft.

The KJ-600’s performance as a deck aircraft remains unknown, especially compared to US aircraft carriers that use a CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) configuration that facilitates its launch.

There is no evidence yet that the KJ-600 can operate on the two current Chinese aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, which use jump decks without a catapult. The third Chinese aircraft carrier is expected to have a flat deck with electromagnetic catapults, compatible with the KJ-600, according to analysts.

The KJ-600 is likely to use two WJ-6C turboprop engines but could switch to more modern WJ-10 engines in the future. Its fuselage design is very compact, making it almost as long as the J-15 carrier-based fighter and Z-18 early warning helicopter. The KJ-600 carries a radar on top of its mid-fuselage, similar to previous Chinese KJ-2000 and KJ-500 early warning aircraft, but it is not yet known whether this radar rotates.

With the planned integration of the KJ-600 into PLAN operations, China is set to significantly enhance its maritime surveillance and air command capabilities, thereby strengthening its strategic position in the seas. This new generation aircraft symbolizes China’s technological progress in the field of defense and its commitment to maintaining a robust and versatile maritime presence.

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