Watching the Neighbours

Twelve Boeing P-8A Poseidon multi-role ASW aircraft serve with two RAAF squadrons (RAAF)

With political tension rising around the world, airborne special mission aircraft have arguably never been more important.

Asia-Pacific states facing Chinese pressure on their South China Sea interests are continuing to enhance their air capabilities. This includes the acquisition of special mission aircraft whose various roles include airborne early warning and control (AEW&C), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT).

Some modern aircraft such as the Boeing P-8A Poseidon multi-mission maritime patrol aircraft, 12 of which have been delivered to the Indian Navy, 12 to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), while six are being delivered to the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) and four to the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Equipped with the Raytheon AN/APY-10 multi-mission surface search radar, the AN/ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measures Suite and AN/APS-154 Advanced Airborne Sensor, the P-8 can undertake maritime and overland ISR missions in addition to the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) role.

The RAAF also has a fleet of six Boeing E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft based on a Boeing 737-700, with the addition of an advanced Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar and 10 mission crew consoles. Its L-band electronically scanned AEW and surveillance radar is located on a dorsal fin on top of the fuselage, dubbed the ‘top hat’, and is designed for minimal aerodynamic effect.

The system provides 360 degree coverage and is capable of simultaneous air and sea search, fighter control and area search, with a maximum range of over 370 miles (600km) in look-up mode. When operating in look-down mode against fighter-sized target, the maximum range is in excess of 230 miles (370km) according to Boeing. When used against maritime targets, the maximum range is over 150 miles (240km) for frigate-sized targets. MESA is capable of simultaneously tracking 180 targets and conducting 24 intercepts. According to the RAAF, the E-7A can cover four million square kilometres during a single 10-hour mission. The RoKAF operates four less capable Boeing 737-AEW Peace Eye aircraft and is considering ordering more.

RAAF operates six Boeing E-7A Wedgetail advanced AEW&C aircraft. (David Oliver)

The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) operates four Gulfstream 550-AEW aircraft modified to carry the Elta conformal AEW platform. The G550 upgrades include pod-housed electronic support measures equipment, satellite communications and line-of-sight datalinks. The aircraft features dual S-band radar arrays at the front and rear as well as L-band sensors on the fuselage side, providing 360 degree coverage and offering a mission endurance of nine hours at an altitude of 41,000 feet (12,500 metres). The G550-AEW aircraft has a detection range of more than 200 nautical miles (370km) to enable the RSAF to see farther and respond more effectively to aerial threats in various operational situations.

The G550-AEW replaced the RSAF’s fleet of land-based Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye AEW&C aircraft which remains in service with the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF). The E-2T Hawkeye twin-turboprop with a large radome mounted on top of the fuselage, which houses the radar antenna. The Hawkeye has advanced radar and communication systems to detect and track airborne targets at long ranges and communicate this information to other aircraft and ground stations. The latest variant, the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, which has been ordered by the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF), is equipped with the AN/APY-9 radar, capable of tracking more than 2,000 targets simultaneously at ranges of over 250 nautical miles (460km). The Hawkeye’s communication systems also allow it to relay real-time ISR data to other aircraft and ground stations, and it is also equipped with electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, including jamming and deception systems, which enable it to disrupt enemy communication and radar systems.

Saab’s adaptable AEW&C radar system is based on active electronically scanned array (AESA) technology. S-band technology ensures excellent performance in all weather conditions and the Erieye Ground Interface Segment is a major component of the software used by the system. The radar provides 300 degree coverage and has an instrumental range of 280 miles (450km) and detection range of 217 miles (350km) in a dense hostile electronic warfare environment, in heavy radar clutter and at low target altitudes. The radar is also capable of identifying friends of foes (IFF), and has a maritime ISR mode. The effective surveillance area is over 500,000 sq. km horizontally and over 60,000ft (18.300m) vertically. Sea coverage is only limited by the horizon and everything from fighter aircraft, hovering helicopters, cruise missiles and Jet Ski-sized sea targets can be detected and tracked. The Erieye has been carried by a number of types of aircraft including the Saab 340B, two of which are operated by the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF), and the Saab 2000, six serving with the Pakistan Air Force.

India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed a similar configured AEW radar system array which is carried on the Brazilian Embraer EMB-145A, three of which are operated by the IAF as the Netra. The IAF also operates two Gulfstream IIIs in the ELINT role. Two Bombardier Global 5000 modified by Israeli Aircraft Industries were delivered to India’s Aviation Research Centre which is the technical arm of the Research and Analysis Wing. The aircraft were equipped with satellite communication (SATCOM) antennas, a forward pod with sensors containing the data-link and synthetic aperture radar (SAR). The aircraft were modified with the IAI’s EL/I-3001 Airborne Integrated SIGINT System (AISIS) for both ELINT and COMINT operations.

IAF Netra
The Indian Air Force’s EMB-145A based Netra is equipped with a DRDO designed AEW&C array radar. (David Oliver)

Japan has developed indigenous special mission aircraft in addition to five Lockheed EP-3C Orion ELINT aircraft operated by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JSDF). The JASDF’s Electronic Intelligence Squadron operates three YS-11EBs developed from the NAMC YS-11 twin turboprop airliner, and a single Kawasaki RC-2 in the SIGINT role. A total of three Kawasaki C-2 long-range transport aircraft are planned to be modified into RC-2 aircraft and after modifications and a test programme, the first Kawasaki RC-2 went into service in 2020. The RC-2 has more than double the operational range and flies at higher altitudes than the YS-11EB. Additionally, the onboard sensor suite developed by Toshiba, NEC and Mitsubishi Electric has an expanded reception frequency band, is capable of collecting digitally modulated waves, and has improved multi-target simultaneous collection capabilities.

The JASDF’s Electronic Warfare Support Squadron operates two YS-11EAs equipped with the J/ALQ-7 system and radome fairings replaced by blade antennas. The unit’s single twin-jet Kawasaki EC-1 is equipped with Mitsubishi Electric’s XJ/ALQ-5 electronic countermeasures (ECM) system, ELINT systems from Toshiba and fitted with a AN/ALE-41K chaff countermeasure pod.

The JASDF has a single Kawasaki RC-2 SIGINT platform and a requirement for three more. (Wakaayu)

Chinas smaller force

For the size of its aviation forces, China has relatively few special mission aircraft. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has a fleet of some 20 KQ-200 ASW aircraft, 13 Y-8 and Y-9 variants, and 24 Y-8J Mask ELINT aircraft and KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft. The PLAAF has 24 KJ-200 and KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft and 14 Y-8CB and Y-9 EW variants. Nearly all these special mission aircraft are developed from the Russian An-12 medium-range, tactical transport aircraft manufactured in China by the Shaanxi Aircraft Company.

The Y-8Q ASW aircraft is equipped with Doppler navigation radar, radio compass, radio altimeter, beacon marker receiver and identification friend or foe (IFF). There is an APSO-504(V)3 surface search radar housed in the under-chin dome and the aircraft also features an inertial navigation system (INS) and Omega global navigation system. The aircraft is equipped with a self-defence electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite, which consists of an all-aspect radar warning receiver (RWR) and chaff/flare dispenser.

PLAN Y-8JZ Monk have been flying routine ELINT missions over the East China Sea near Japan.

The KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft’s onboard systems are completely networked into the Chinese Battle Management System (BMS) and offer enhanced identification, multi-function, and responsiveness capabilities.

The Y-9DZ is China’s newly developed electronic warfare version of the Y-9 aircraft which entered service in 2019. Featuring state-of-the-art sensors and communication systems, the Y-9DZ is equipped to perform a diverse array of observation tasks, such as ELINT, SIGINT and ISR. The Y-9DZ is fitted with two large rectangular-shaped ESM/ELINT antennas on each side of the rear fuselage and a range of other antennas strategically placed throughout the aircraft. Also, an oval dish-shaped ESM antenna is positioned atop the vertical fin, while a SATCOM antenna sits on the mid-fuselage.

The KJ-2000 development programme started after the cancellation of the A-50I Phalcon contract with Israel and Russia in July 2000, due to strong US pressure regarding the Israeli radar that was to be mounted. China then went on to develop a domestic AEW&C radar and the first aircraft made its maiden flight in 2003. Four KJ-2000 aircraft have been reported to have been delivered so far, but production of new aircraft will likely to have been delayed due to the lack of new Il-76 airframes from Russia.

In the annual joint air Exercise Falcon Strike held in June 2023 between Thailand and China, participants included PLAAF KJ-500 and RTAF Saab 340 AEW&C aircraft. Thailand is classified as a major non-NATO ally by the United States although it has been developing closer defence ties with China over the past decade.

Another country seeing military co-operation with China increase since 2022, is Russia, and its Pacific Fleet has taken part in a number of joint exercises in the Sea of Japan. In June 2023 Russia’s Pacific Fleet commenced extensive naval exercises in the Far East, which included 35 naval aircraft including five Ilyushin Il-38 May ASW aircraft of the Russian Pacific Fleet Naval Aviation. In another exercise held in the Bering Sea off the coast of Siberia in September 2023 Russian corvettes carried out antisubmarine drills with Il-38 aircraft and a Russian Pacific Fleet submarine acting as the adversary.

The modernised Ilyushin Il-38N aircraft features wider range of combat capabilities and supports ELINT duties including mapping magnetic and gravitational fields of the Northern Ice sea, scientific oceanographic research and underwater and air reconnaissance missions. The main difference between the Il-38 based on the original Il-18 commercial airliner and Il-38N is that it is equipped with the Leninets Novella-P-39 and Sea Dragon systems that includes a digital computer manned by two operators and which integrates several sensors, including a radar for detecting aerial and surface targets within a 200 mile (320km) radius of the aircraft, a radio sonobuoy system, a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) with a range up to 2,900ft (900m), an EO turret with TV, IR, imaging, laser rangefinder and automatic target tracking, Electronic Support Measures (ESM) with sensors hosted in a circular pattern in a box fairing located over the cockpit. The upgraded sensor suite is also capable of detecting air targets at a distance of up to 56 miles (90km) and simultaneously tracking up to 32 targets.

Upgraded Il-38N MPAs of Russia’s Pacific Fleet take part in Sino- Russian exercises. (David Oliver)

The Russian Pacific Fleet Naval Aviation also has an EW unit equipped with Il-20RT Coot-A and Il-22 Coot-B aircraft.  The Coot-A is equipped with ELINT and communications intelligence (COMINT) equipment including the Igla-1 side looking airborne radar (SLAR) and the Vishnia SRS-4 Romb and Kwadrat-2 ELINT systems and an A-87P camera. The Coot-B aircraft is an aerial command post and radio relay aircraft.

The Russian Pacific Fleet exercises occur amid heightened tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly on the Korean peninsula, which has witnessed numerous North Korean missile launches and joint military drills by the United States and South Korea. The regional situation has been further strained by the standoff between China and the United States regarding Taiwan. Despite Beijing’s opposition, Taiwan continues to acquire American weapons, while China considers the island to be part of its sovereign territory.

Furthermore, Russia and Japan remain entangled in a territorial dispute concerning the Kuril Islands. Tokyo disputes Moscow’s sovereignty over four of the archipelago’s islands, which were captured by the Soviet Union during World War Two.

Against the background of mounting economic and political challenges overall defence budget growth in the Asia-Pacific region has been lower compared to the previous decade. However, where significant growth has occurred it has been the result of the approval of large special budgets for defence, such as in Japan and Taiwan which will both see the acquisition of the latest special mission aircraft along with Australia and India.

by David Oliver