SINGAPORE – China has ramped up production of its newest airborne early warning aircraft, in what an expert on Chinese military aviation says is a sign of the platform’s maturity.

Recent satellite photos show eight Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early warning and control, or AEW&C aircraft at the company’s factory airfield at Hanzhong, Shaanxi Province in mid-December 2017. The aircraft were undergoing testing before delivery to China’s military.

These aircraft will join at least four KJ-500s already in service with China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force or PLAAF and a similar number already in service with the naval aviation units, according to Andreas Rupprecht, who has authored several books on China’s military aviation and industry.

Three People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, KJ-500s were seen on satellite photos of the airbase at Lingshui on the Chinese island province of Hainan by December 2017, on the fringes of the South China Sea. Satellite imagery released by Stratfor has also revealed the PLAAF has deployed KJ-500s to Lhasa-Gonggar Airport in Tibet, 200 miles from the Doklam Plateau where a standoff between Chinese and Indian troops over the disputed border occurred in 2017.

Rupprecht told Defense News the dramatic ramp up of KJ-500 is part of pattern of similar increases in production of the Y-9 turboprop airlifter and its derivatives, which include anti-submarine, electronic warfare, and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance variants, adding that this is an indication that the KJ-500 design is mature enough to be the standard AEW&C platform in both the PLAAF and PLAN.

The KJ-500 has a fixed dorsal rotodome containing three radar arrays each containing active electronically scanned array or AESA radars arranged in a triangular configuration to give full 360° coverage. The new radar design supplants the “balance beam” design used on the earlier Shaanxi KJ-200 AEW&C aircraft.

The radar is reportedly designed by China’s 38th Research Institute of the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, and is said to be smaller and lighter than the rotodome fitted on China’s KJ-2000 AEW&C platform based on the Russian Ilyushin Il-76 jet airlifter. China has built four KJ-2000s and at least 11 KJ-200s based on the Y-8 airlifter, with both types entering service in the mid-2000s.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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