Naval Air: New Chinese ASW Aircraft Over the South China Sea

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September 1, 2017: China appears to have stationed four new Y-8Qs, the most advanced model of its ASW (anti-submarine warfare) aircraft, in the south (Hainan Island). This is where China stations warships and naval aircraft that operate throughout the South China Sea. This ASW version of the Y-8 was first seen in the air being tested in 2010. By 2013 it was identified as the Y-8X (also known as the Gaoxin-6). A more advanced model, the Y-8J was seen being tested, like earlier models, in the north by the Northern Fleet. In 2015 the Y-8Q was first spotted, again in the north. This latest sighting, in May 2017, was the first time this aircraft was seen in the south and the four seen in Hainan appear (because of their ID numbers) to be part of the Southern Fleet.

The Y-8Q is China’s answer to the American P-3C maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft. Both aircraft are similar in shape and equipment. While equipped in a similar fashion it is still unclear how close the Y-8Q is to the P-3C in capability. The first flight of a fully equipped Gaoxin-6 took place in 2012, and apparently the design was being rushed into service.

China is playing catchup here, as the U.S. has been using these anti-submarine aircraft since the 1950s. While Chinese espionage efforts may have obtained details of most American anti-submarine aircraft equipment, there’s no way to steal decades of experience. Another problem China will have is that when their anti-sub aircraft are actually put to use tracking American and other (especially Japanese and South Korean) submarines this will take place in international waters where the Y-8Q can be followed and monitored by American intelligence collection aircraft and ships.

The Y-8Q is a four engine turboprop aircraft that weighs sixty-one tons, has a thirty-eight meter (124.7 foot) wingspan, and a cruising speed of six-hundred and sixty kilometers an hour. The Y-8 is based on the Russian An-12 and U.S. C-130. There is also a larger version, the seventy-seven ton Y-9, which is believed to be a Chinese attempt to build an aircraft with similar characteristics to the American C-130J, and this version may also be used for ASW work.

The similar American P-3 is based on the Electra civilian airliner that first flew in 1954. Only 170 Electras were built but there nearly four times as many P-3s. A few Electras and over 200 P-3s are still in service.

Currently there are about two-hundred P-8s, P-3s and smaller anti-submarine aircraft in the western Pacific, and except for a few Chinese and Russian ASW aircraft, most are operated by nations that don’t get along well with China. Until the Y-8Q shows up in large numbers, China will be at a major disadvantage in this department. Chinese subs were under constant surveillance by their anti-submarine aircraft while China was restricted to the comparatively slow warships with equipment for finding and attacking subs. China has even fewer helicopters equipped to anti-submarine work.

The sixty-one ton P-3 has a 32.5 meter (one-hundred foot) wingspan and can stay in the air about ten hours per sortie. Cruise speed is 590 kilometers an hour. Like the P-3C, the Y-8Q carries radars and other sensors, as well as a few tons of sonobuoys, depth charges, and torpedoes.

The P-3C is being replaced by the P-8 Poseidon, which entered service in 2013 and is based on the widely used Boeing 737 airliner. Although the Boeing 737 based P-8A is a two engine jet, compared to the four engine turboprop P-3, it is a far more capable plane. The P-8A has 23 percent more floor space than the P-3 and is larger (38 meter/118 foot wingspan, versus 32.25 meter/100 foot) and heavier (83 tons versus 61). Most other characteristics are the same. Both can stay in the air about 10 hours per sortie. Speed is different. Cruise speed for the 737 is 910 kilometers an hour, versus 590 for the P-3. This makes it possible for the P-8A to get to a patrol area faster, which is a major advantage when chasing down subs first spotted by distant sonar arrays or satellites. However, the P-3 can carry more weapons (9 tons versus 5.6). This is less of a factor as the weapons (torpedoes, missiles, mines, sonobouys) are lighter and more effective today and that trend continues. Both carry the same size crew of 10-11 pilots and equipment operators. Both aircraft carry search radar and various other sensors.

The 737 has, like the P-3, been equipped with hard points on the wings for torpedoes or missiles. The B-737 is a more modern design and has been used successfully since the 1960s by commercial aviation. Navy aviators are confident that it will be as reliable as the P-3.

The Y-8/9 is based on an old Russian aircraft design, the An-12. This Chinese copy of the An-12 never caught on big as a transport but some were converted to work as radar (AWACS), maritime patrol/anti-submarine or electronic warfare aircraft.

China has been building the Y-8 since the early 1980s. The basic fifty-four ton propeller driven Y-8 can, like the similar American C-130H, carry twenty tons. China only built about 150 Y-8s since the 1980s and sold some to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Sudan. Meanwhile, more new uses are being found for the Y-8. One was converted to a medical evacuation aircraft, able to carry thirty-nine casualties on stretchers and fifteen able to sit, plus medical personnel.

Many of the older An-12s are still flying. But Russia has grounded all its An-12s more frequently because of old-age related reliability problems. The Russian answer to the American C-130, the sixty-one ton An-12 entered service in 1959 (two years after the C-130), but production ceased in 1973 (after 1,280 were built). The seventy ton C-130 remains in production and over 2,400 have been built.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Y-8s are well maintained and constantly updated with new equipment. China is apparently increasing production and finding even more uses for this sixty year old design, as well as producing an upgraded model, the Y-9.

 


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