November 22, 2004
China, blocked four years ago, by the United States, from buying Israeli Phalcon airborne radar systems, has developed its own. The phased array radar technology is not exactly bleeding edge, but the highly capable and reliable versions are only made by American and Israeli firms. The Chinese radar and electronic, installed in a Russian built Be-50 (a version of the Il-76, modified to operate as an airborne radar control system, like AWACS), began flight testing a year ago. There appear to be two of them now, and one about ready to enter service. While the Phalcon system could track up to a hundred aircraft, and guide a dozen fighters to their targets in all sorts of weather, the Chinese KJ-2000 (as the IL-76 equipped with a radar dome aircraft is now called) appears to have more modest capabilities. But the KJ-2000 can be refueled in the air, which would allow it to stay in the air over a combat zone for 12 hours or more.
China may build as many as four KJ-2000s, as thats the number of Phalcon equipped Il-76s they planned. The technology in the KJ-2000 is largely Chinese, although they may have gotten some items from Russia. The Russians have not been reluctant to sell the Chinese military technology, as this allows Russia to keep its own military manufacturing enterprises going. But many of the Russian engineers who developed the Cold War era Be-50 are out of that work, either unemployed, doing something else or retired. The Chinese have hired Russian technical experts before. Mainly, China wants to develop the high tech industries that will enable them to compete with technology powerhouses like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It galls the Chinese to see these smaller neighbors so far ahead of them in technology, especially military technology. They have learned that the only way to catch up is to start with something modest, and work their way up. The BJ-2000 is a start. Japan already has AWACS, as does Taiwan (a version of the US Navy E-2 airborne control aircraft.) AWACS gives an air force another edge in air battles. The KJ-2000 is probably less effective than the Taiwanese E-2s, but it eats into the Taiwanese advantage. And in 5-10 years, upgrades of the KJ-2000 will close the gap.