TAIPEI – The one great testament to China’s anti-access/area denial efforts were weapon and sensor systems on display at the recent China Airshow in Zhuhai.
One of the most noticeable was the road-mobile JY-26 "Skywatch-U" 3-D long-range air surveillance radar. China had plenty of road-mobile radars on display, but this one claimed a unique capability — "stealth target detection." This towering radar is a clear symbol of China's continued desire to locate and destroy stealth aircraft like the B-2 bomber and F-22 and F-35 fighters.
According to a brochure by the East China Research Institute of Electronic Engineering (ECRIEE), this radar "boasts double stealth target detection virtues thanks to operation in UHF [ultra high frequency] band and owning of large power-aperture product" for both air breathing targets and tactical missiles. The range of the UHF radar is not cited on the brochure, but other details are, including electronic counter-countermeasures and a complex digital active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar capable of tracking 500 targets.
An unusual feature is the bubble surface of the radar, which looks similar to Lockheed Martin's offering in the Three Dimensional Expeditionary Long-Range Radar (3DELRR) competition, which Raytheon won. The surface of both radars is analogous to bubble wrap used to ship breakable items in the mail. These bubbles are transmit receive modules (TRM), but the JY-26 has fewer TRMs then the Lockheed 3DELRR, said Richard Fisher, senior fellow on Asian military affairs, International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Press reports of an alleged Chinese cyber espionage strike against Lockheed surfaced in April 2009, Fisher said. "Barring further US and Lockheed disclosures, we cannot know whether China stole critical radar information in addition to other programs like the F-35 stealth fighter."
However, John Wise, a UK-based radar specialist, said the Lockheed 3DELRR is a "G-band (5.4GHz) radar and has nothing whatsoever in common with the JY-26, other than shape." If JY-26 has true anti-stealth aircraft detection and tracking capability, it would need to operate down the bottom end of the UHF band (250-350MHz), he said.
"The elements [TMR] might be so shaped because they may offer circular polarization, which could have benefits for an air detection radar, and guesstimate the elements are half wavelength in dimension," he said.
In 2011, an image of a larger version of the JY-26 appeared on Chinese-language military blogs that had twice the number of TMRs than the Lockheed radar, but the JY-26 variant on display at Zhuhai had fewer, which suggests the JY-26 at Zhuhai is either a lower-cost model or its developer has improved its software to allow for fewer TRMs, Fisher said.
"Nevertheless, the JY-26 poses a real threat to US and allied air forces and also demonstrates China's capacity for developing electronic warfare systems that are competitive with the latest US systems," Fisher said.
The timing of China's cyber espionage and the appearance of the JY-26 suggest a painful question, Fisher said.
"Did China successfully steal data from Lockheed Martin's radar shop that is now going to be used to better prosecute Lockheed's F-35 fighter?"
Other experts, such as Wise, caution that common radar configurations are not necessarily evidence of espionage because similar engineering objectives could lead to similar solutions. Fisher said he believes the Lockheed radar was compromised by Chinese espionage and the evidence is the eerie similarity between two radars that use unique TMRs.
According to a Nov. 10 China-based article in the Global Times, a Shandong Province-based JY-26 recently monitored an F-22 flying to South Korea. Separated by the Yellow Sea, Shandong's coastline is 400 kilometers from Kunsan Air Base and Osan Air Base, South Korea.
Who would be in the market for the JY-26? For one, Pakistan has to contend with India's stealth fighter program with Russia, and Iran must deal with Israel's planned procurement of the F-35 fighter.
Then there is the continuing threat many nations face from US B-2 bombers, F-22 fighters and eventually the F-35. ■