Warplanes: China's Two AWACS Projects


June 16, 2006: The recent crash of an experimental Chinese AWACs aircraft was often misreported. China actually have two AWACs aircraft. The KJ-2000, which was often, and erroneously, reported as the type aircraft that crashed, is largely based on imported aircraft. The KJ-2000 is actually a Russian built IL-76, initially equipped with a Russian radar. Now the KJ-2000 is being equipped with a Chinese radar of the same type. But the aircraft that crashed was a Chinese made Y-8 (based on the old Russian IL-14 prop transport). The modified Y-8 is carrying a "Balanced Beam" phased array radar. This is a very advanced system, and looks very similar to the Swedish Saab 340 AWACs. Did the Chinese get their hands on the Swedish technology? Or have they managed to develop their own advanced phased array radar.

Originally, China wanted to buy the Israeli Phalcon phased array radar, but this was blocked by the United States. So China began two separate research projects to develop their own phased array radar. The KJ-2000 one used some licensed technology, which the Y-8 project attempted to get, via research or theft, the most advanced phased array stuff.

China typically sets two different development teams to create new systems. One team pursues a "safe" course, using more expensive imported or licensed technology. The other team tries to solve the problems using Chinese technology, and very little imported stuff. That's what the Y-8 Balanced Beam project was, and the first working prototype only flew 18 months ago. Meanwhile, the KJ-2000 is expected to enter service next year.

The Y-8 Balanced Beam was the more valuable long shot, and when it crashed, it apparently took many top technical people with it. The Balanced Beam system would have a range of over 400 kilometers, and many more capabilities than the KJ-2000. The Y-8 project will probably continue, even though it has suffered a major setback.


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