Listening, Watching, Gathering – Chinese EW Comes of Age

Y-8 and Y-9
The PLA Air Force and PLA Naval Air Force are using the domestically produced Y-8 and Y-9 as a base for airborne advanced warning and EW platforms. (JR Ng)

China’s special mission aircraft are maturing intelligence gathering assets that are gaining data on tactics, techniques and procedures of those opponents that may be faced in the future.

China has in recent years stepped up efforts to assert its aerial power projection capabilities in East Asia, demonstrating not just its intent to be the dominant power in the region, but also its increasingly modern armed forces and the concomitant reach of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF).

The PLAAF and PLANAF are among the foremost of Beijing’s grey zone pressure tactics that are gradually tightening the noose around Taiwan’s immediate airspace, in which the services conduct relentless ‘combat readiness patrols’ practically almost every month of 2023 to try to force the island – which it considers a breakaway province that must be reunited by force if necessary – to accept its authority.

On 9 August, the Taiwan Ministry of National Defense (MND) reported that it had detected and tracked a total of 25 PLAAF aircraft engaging in operations out at sea, including Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-16 multirole combat aircraft, as well as Xi’an H-6 bombers. The MND noted that at least 10 aircraft had either crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait which previously served as an unofficial buffer between the two sides, or entered the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) prompting the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) to deploy its combat aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Ministry of Defense (JMOD) reported in July that the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) conducted 238 fighter scrambles in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2023 (FY2023). Sixty-six percent of these snap deployments were made against Chinese aircraft with the remainder against Russian and other aircraft, according to data released by JMOD’s Joint Staff Office (JSO).

The most recent incident occurred on 25 August, with the JASDF scrambling its jets to monitor two PLAAF H-6 bombers as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operating near Japan’s southwestern Okinawa Island and Taiwan. Okinawa supports several major US military bases and is considered to be one of the lynchpins of Japan-US strategy to deter China from using force against Taiwan or nearby Japanese islands.

The High New Programme

While the activities of Chinese combat aircraft and bombers have naturally attracted plenty of attention given their offensive nature – achieving air dominance and/or stage stand-off attacks – there is a growing realisation that both PLAAF and PLANAF are fielding a growing range of airborne electronic warfare (EW) capabilities.

The most prominent of these would be the Gaoxin (High New) programme which seeks to develop a range of advanced special mission aircraft as part of a wider drive to enhance anti-submarine warfare (ASW), intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) as well as EW capability.

Since the first Gaoxin aircraft was introduced around 30 years ago, the PLAAF and PLANAF are understood to have developed and fielded as many as 12 highly sophisticated variants of the platform family, with more specialised types such as cyber warfare and communications and signals intelligence (SIGINT) in the pipeline.

The Y-8’s platform design is derived from the Antonov An-12 ‘Cub’ and locally manufactured from the early 1970s following several examples bought from the Soviet Union. Production of the Y-9 – a modernised version of the Y-8 – commenced from 2010, with the aircraft entering PLAAF service from around 2012. Earlier Gaoxin models were based on the Shaanxi Y-8 multirole transport, although more recent developments have used the more capable Y-9 platform.

Among the latest of the Gaoxin platforms is the GX-12 or Y-9DZ which is understood to have been first recorded by the Taiwan MND in its ADIZ in September 2022. Visual evidence suggest that this variant is a next-generation multirole EW platform featuring antennas associated with electronic support measures (ESM), communications intelligence (COMINT), synthetic aperture radar-ground moving target indication (SAR-GMTI), and ELINT systems. The presence of these features indicate that the Chinese are fielding swing-role aircraft that are capable of conducting the full spectrum of airborne electronic missions – from ELINT and SAR surveillance to also being capable of communications jamming and psychological operations.

The importance of these aircraft is underscored by the growing tendency to deploy these platforms outside Chinese airspace. Tracking data sourced from JMOD and the Taiwanese MND suggest that Chinese special mission aircraft play an increasingly central role in Chinese combat readiness patrols and other types of air operations.

For example, JMOD has tracked over 300 notable sorties by Chinese special mission aircraft near Japanese airspace since 2011. Over a third of these sorties featured Y-8/Y-9 special mission aircraft. Meanwhile, the Taiwanese MND also tracked over 4,000 sorties by Chinese aircraft in Taiwan’s air-defence ADIZ between September 2020 to 2023. Over 20 percent of these featured Y-8/Y-9 special mission aircraft.  The JASDF’s other notable electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft interceptions include three sorties by SAIC Y-9JB (GX-8) aircraft. MoD data from previous years shows sustained Y-9JB use near Japan. According to the Taiwan MND the Y-9JB uses an advanced ELINT system. The aircraft is also thought to be an equivalent to Japan’s EP-3 Orion signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft.

Japanese air defences also identified a Y-9G (GX-11) EW aircraft for the first time over their territorial waters in April 2022. The Taiwan MND said that this aircraft is equipped with a new generation of electronic jammers. The aircraft is thought to have the ability to electronically suppress or interfere with adversarial air-defence and early warning systems. The Taiwan MND also pronounced the aircraft as a “significant threat”.

“These statistics suggest that the PLA is leveraging its growing airborne electronic capabilities to detect and monitor submarines, aircraft, and ships; counter or deceive adversarial forces; and test its evolving mission systems in an operational setting,” Feng Zhu, a senior researcher at a state-sponsored research institute, told AMR.

“More importantly, these efforts are clearly aimed at maturing the PLA’s airborne electronic order of battle, operational concepts, as well as tactics,” added Feng.

Next-Gen tactical EW aircraft

The PLAAF has also revealed its new EW variant of the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) J-16 multirole fighter aircraft at the Airshow China 2021 defence exhibition in Zhuhai.

The two-seat aircraft, officially designated the J-16D, was highlighted at the outdoor static display area in low visibility PLAAF markings.

Although no official data of the J-16D has been released, the type is clearly distinctive from the baseline J-16 multirole fighter in several aspects. Notable differences include two prominent electronic warfare pods on its wingtips as well as a shorter nose radome that is believed to accommodate an active electronically scanned-array (AESA) radar.

The standard internal 30mm rotary cannon and the infrared search and track (IRST) sensor system have also been removed, likely to free up space for the additional electronic systems required for its EW mission equipment. The absence of the IRST system reinforces the J-16D’s specialised role as an airborne special mission aircraft, as its air-to-air combat capabilities have been diminished.

Moreover, the aircraft on display also featured four large jamming pods under its wings and air intakes. Each pod is clearly physically distinct and is therefore likely to cover different frequency ranges in the electronic spectrum.

The first J-16D prototype reportedly first flew in late 2015 and seen with the KG600 EW pods developed by China Electronics Technology Group (CETC), although the new pods seen on the aircraft in Zhuhai have not been previously documented.

Footage released by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) just a month after its official public unveiling showed at least two J-16D aircraft – which were shown bearing PLAAF insignia and serial numbers – taking off from an undisclosed location in China and conducting a series of flight manoeuvres, with the media outlet noting that the aircraft were deployed in “combat-oriented drills”.

The images confirm that the variant has formally entered PLAAF service, although it is unclear when these images were taken. CCTV reported that that J-16D will be used to provide EW support for the other combat aircraft, including the service’s Chengdu J-20 5th Generation multirole fighter.

J-16D tactical EW aircraft
The PLA Air Force has fielded the J-16D tactical EW aircraft. (CGTN)

The next bound: unmanned systems

China has been an enthusiastic adopter of unmanned systems and has been using its long-range UAVs to conduct routine patrols near Japan and Taiwan since the early 2000s. However, the PLA has in more recent years demonstrated its increasing confidence in its unmanned air operations, as observed by Japan and Taiwan.

For example, the JMOD reported that the JASDF had tracked an increase in air interceptions of Chinese military UAVs in 2022, with its data also showing a higher incidence rate of these systems over Japanese territorial waters in 2022 than in previous years.

According to the JMOD data, the PLA conducted 10 sorties using UAVs, including the first recorded appearance of the turbofan-powered Guizhou Aviation Industry Group (GAIG) WZ-7 multirole high-altitude long-endurance (HALE). The first WZ-7 sortie near Japan was documented on 1 January 2023 with a second sortie logged on the following day. In contrast, the JMOD only recorded three UAV sorties near Japan in 2021.

The WZ-7 was developed to conduct ISR operations at altitudes of up to 60,000 feet (18,000 metres), although Feng noted that also has potential applications as a communications relay and for bomb damage assessment (BDA). The WZ-7 was first shown to the public as a concept model at Airshow China 2006, with development understood to have been completed around the mid-2010s. The type is believed to be the PLAAF’s primary high-altitude unmanned platform for reconnaissance operations near strategically vital locations and is believed to be roughly analogous in terms of function but not performance with the US-made Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk HALE UAV due to known deficiencies with indigenous turbofan engine technology.

The PLAAF is using HALE-class UAVs such as the WZ-7 for long range harrassment of Japan and Taiwan. (CGTN)

The Taiwan MND has also begun releasing tracking information on long-range PLA UAV activity. While such activity is not a new phenomenon and Chinese military UAVs have previously intruded into Taiwan’s ADIZ in the past, the MND only revealed such details to the public for the first time in September 2022, when a medium altitude long endurance (MALE)-class Sichuan Tengden TB001 multirole UAV was detected as part of a group of 45 aircraft that had operated near the eastern part of the median line of the Taiwan Strait and southwest ADIZ.

“What is really interesting about the latest UAV activity near Taiwan is the PLA’s use of the new TB-001 aerial system, which had previously appeared close to Japanese airspace in the direction of the Ryukyu Island chain,” said Feng.

Unlike most conventional MALE-class UAV designs, the TB001 features distinctive twin-boom airframe design and forward-mounted turboprop propellers. The type is developed by the privately owned Sichuan Tengden Technology Company (Tengden) – which is nevertheless believed to be linked to AVIC’s 611 Research Institute – and is also known locally as the ‘Twin-tailed Scorpion’, with first flight achieved in March 2019. It is also not known if the intercepted TB001 has already entered service with the PLA or is still undergoing operational trials, although it is clear that the air vehicles were not being used for civilian or scientific mission judging from their deliberate flightpaths that skirted Japanese and Taiwanese airspace.

According to company specifications, the TB001 has maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 6,173 pounds (2,800 kilogrammes), as well as an overall wingspan of 65ft (20m). The twin-turboprop engines enable the air vehicle to operate at altitudes of up to 26,200ft (8,000m), with a maximum range of 3,240 nautical miles (6,000 kilometres and endurance of 35 hours when carrying a 2,200 pound (1,000 kilogramme) payload.

While earlier images showed TB001 UAVs equipped for ISR operations with a single undernose EO/IR turret, subsequent sightings of the type showed a TB001 variant that appears to be equipped with a ventral blade antenna array and mission pods which indicated a COMINT/SIGINT or EW role.

New types of EW UAVs are also in development by the Aerospace Times Feihong Technology Company (ATFTC), which is a subsidiary of the state-owned defence conglomerate China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). In late 2022, ATFTC announced on social media that its new Feihong 95 (FH-95) multirole UAV had entered reliability trials in anticipation of serial production.

According to details released by CASC, the FH-95 has a MTOW of up to 2,200lbs (1,000kg) inclusive of a 550lb (250kg) payload. The company also claims that the air vehicle can reach a maximum service ceiling of 42,000ft (12,800m) whilst staying aloft for up to 24 hours after launch.

Images of the UAV released by ATFTC showed two FH-95 prototypes in flight-testing at an undisclosed location in China. Among these were an air vehicle in a clean configuration and marked with what appears to be a serial number, indicating that it had been acquired and put under user-evaluation trials. Other images depicted a second UAV equipped with four weapon hardpoints and armed with several weapons, including an FT-8C laser-guided missile.

ATFTC had earlier highlighted the type’s ability to conduct high-end EW operations alongside other UAVs within its product portfolio such as its tactical-class FH-92A and ‘loyal wingman’ FH-97A platforms, as well as crewed combat aircraft. Company infographics depicted an FH-95 performing suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) operations by detecting transmissions from adversarial ground stations and transmitting the data to nearby friendly assets, before using its onboard EW systems to disrupt communications and then launching an anti-radiation missile.

ATFTC noted in its infographics that the EW variant will feature an internal payload bay for mission systems such as electronic intelligence (ELINT) equipment, while several compact EW jamming pods – which appear to include a miniaturised version of the export-oriented BM/KG300G electronic countermeasures (ECM) system – were seen mounted on its underwing pylons.

Previous images of the aircraft also show an ESM module integrated at the end of each tail boom to provide 360º coverage. An additional ESM is also fitted to the nose for forward-aspect interventions. The company also indicated that the FH-95 would also be able to serve as a communications relay between airborne and ground assets if desired.

“The modularity of the FH-95 enables the air vehicle to be used to conduct complex missions including comprehensive reconnaissance in high-threat environments, as well as electronic warfare and pinpoint targeting,” the company added, noting that it will not only be capable of conducting electronic jamming support but also armed reconnaissance, border patrol, and maritime surveillance.

The FH-95 is specifically developed for airborne EW and other support missions. (CGTN)

Another CASC-owned business, China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA), is also looking to broadening the mission scope of its successful Caihong-4 (CH-4) MALE UAV with EW features. Typically known for its armed surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, the company has integrated new electronic reconnaissance and ECM pods to fulfil a requirement for persistent airborne SIGINT/EW. The payload is designed to be carried on the air vehicle’s underbelly hardpoints.

“[We have developed] a new Long-Term Evolution [LTE] base station and podded high-speed communications relay to deliver broader coverage at a faster speed, with lower latency and improved spectrum efficiency compared with legacy technologies,” a CAAA spokesperson told AMR.

“The LTE-based communications suite is an end-to-end integrated information processing and distribution system [that can] support a networked force with high-speed, high-throughput data transfer, as well as situational awareness sharing capabilities,” the spokesperson explained.


China has achieved great strides in modernising its air force and naval air arms, with Chinese airpower taking centre stage in the Indo-Pacific in the latter part of 2020 as PLAAF and PLANAF mounted regular operations near Japan’s waters and Taiwan’s ADIZ. Their constant and pervasive presence is not just a show of force to degrade morale, but also intended to attrit the JASDF’s and RoCAF’s ability to generate airpower. China’s growing airborne EW capabilities will no doubt further complicate Japanese and Taiwanese efforts to thwart its encroaching aircraft.

by Jr Ng