Satellite imagery purportedly shows that the Chinese military has deployed its advanced airborne early warning and control airplanes to a military airbase near the disputed South China Sea.
Beijing deployed a pair of its state-of-the-art Shaanxi KJ-500 aircraft to Jialaishi Air Base in the northern part of China’s Hainan island, said a report by the Defense News on Friday, citing a March 24 satellite photo provided by the DigitalGlobe company, a US commercial vendor of space imagery and geospatial content.
The satellite imagery showed the KJ-500 planes, the latest generation of AEW&CS aircraft, as resting alongside two other older planes, one of them a KJ-200 aircraft and the other possibly a Y-8J or Y-8X maritime patrol airplane. The KJ-200 AEW&C aircraft, which are currently in service with the Chinese military, are expected to be replaced by younger and more advanced KJ-500 aircraft.
Having entered into service with the Chinese Air Force in early 2015, the KJ-500, with the help of a satellite communications dome atop it, is reportedly capable of tracking nearly 100 vehicles simultaneously.
The bigger radar array of the KJ-500 also creates more effective situation awareness and allows guidance and control of enemy and friendly planes, while smaller radars mounted on the nose and rear fuselage guarantee additional coverage.
So far, only six KJ-500 aircraft are known to be used by the Chinese military, with four of them employed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force and the remaining two used by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which are currently deployed in Hainan, tasked with special missions.
Jialaishi is one of three major PLAN air bases in Hainan, located on the northern parts of the South China Sea and its contested islands.
The South China Sea is located between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei and hosts one of the world’s busiest waterways and is believed to be rich in mineral and gas deposits and fishing grounds. The neighboring countries have long disputed the ownership of the territories in the waterbody, through which about $5 trillion of global sea-borne trade passes each year.
However, Beijing claims all the contested sea, including waters and rocks close to the shores of neighbors, and has been building much-criticized artificial islands and installing military equipment on them, including on some reefs in the Spratly chain, which are also claimed by Manila.
The regional military presence of the United States, which always takes sides with China’s rival claimants in the disputed waters, has been a source of concern for China’s leadership.