China converts 737s into military surveillance aircraft first

The Chinese Military Aviation blog last week posted a new photo showing a Boeing 737-300 as a military surveillance aircraft in the Chinese air force fleet.



Two questions: How did the People’s Liberation Army Air Force get a 737 surveillance aircraft three years before the US military, which has just started flying prototypes of the 737-based P-8A? And, not least, who is in trouble?

Richard Fisher, senior fellow for Asian Military Affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, answered both questions for me this morning.

Fisher, it turns out, broke the story of the PLAAF 737s at the 2004 Zhuhai air show, as he browsed a promotional video playing at the Xian Aircraft exhibit booth.

“I noticed what looked like – Good God, is that a 737?” Fisher recalls.

He snapped a photo showing the 737 parked next to H-6 bombers on the flightline outside Xian’s factory. The airframe bore the familiar marks of surveillance aircraft, he says.

By the time Fisher returned home, images of two 737s operating as surveillance aircraft in the PLAAF fleet had appeared across the Internet. Modifying US-made airliners into military surveillance aircraft is illegal without a presidential-level waiver, which seems unlikely in China’s case.

Despite the photographic evidence, the US government apparently never sanctioned Xian or Chinese airlines, both of which remain a huge part of Boeing’s supply chain and order backlog, respectively, for civilian aircraft.

“Somehow our bureaucracy dropped the ball either for what they consider legitimate reasons, or,” says Fisher, “for reasons we’re not privy to, such as private lobbying from unnamed corporate forces who would not want sanctions placed on China which would have an impact on the sale of Boeing commercial aircraft.”

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31 Responses to China converts 737s into military surveillance aircraft first

  1. Tom 17 May, 2010 at 8:10 pm #

    I might be wrong, but if these are 737-300 aircraft, they have been out of production for over a decade. So, more than likely, these aircraft were former comercial aircraft. As such, I don’t think our government could do anything to the Chinese. Once the aircraft leaves US soil, it pretty much can be modified to do anything the owner wants, without our permission. Also, since they don’t have to follow FAA certification processes or USAF/USN requirements, of course they could get something flying faster than the P-8A. Their planes are not held to the same standard as ours.

  2. Stephen Trimble 17 May, 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    You’re correct about the 737-300s.

  3. JP Santiago 18 May, 2010 at 4:07 am #

    We’ve known about these two 737-300s for sometime. The 737s were purchased from Garuda Indonesia in 2000, and aren’t even surveillance aircraft- they serve in the airborne command post role. The two aircraft were registered as B-4052 (ex PK-GWI, MSN 24701/LN 1957) and B-4053 (ex PK-GWJ, MSN 24702/LN 1994) and were converted by Xian Aircraft Co. with a dorsal-mounted teardrop fairing ahead of the wings (presumably a SATCOM antenna) and two smaller ventral teardrop fairings for and aft of the wings that likely serve the specialized communications suite. The PLAAF 737s are operated by the 34th Air Division based in Beijing.

  4. sokala 18 May, 2010 at 4:12 am #

    You won’t believe how freaking hard it is to get the P-8A into the air for testing. It takes no less than 65 signatures in NAVAIR to just get the test procedure approved. Heaven help you if someone finds a typo as simple as a misplaced period on the day of the test – everything comes to stop and it takes days to fix so the test can go on. In China they would probably shoot the person who created a 65 person long signature routing. Ironically, I bet that order doesn’t take 65 people.

  5. aeroxavier 18 May, 2010 at 11:02 am #

    only the chinese flag was chinese

  6. Tim D-T 18 May, 2010 at 3:14 pm #

    I agree with JP Santiago – just because it has some nice comm gear doesn’t make it a “surveillance aircraft”. I don’t see any belly pod, side blisters, etc. for something interesting like a radar. Might even just be specialized transport for the command elite, with the necessary communications connections.

  7. Stephen Trimble 18 May, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    Ok, fair points. The Chinese Military Aviation blog calls it a missile tracking aircraft, and it carries data links and telemetry equipment. So no sensors involved. And those kinds of equipment can be converted easily into a command and control aircraft.

  8. airplanejim 18 May, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    Stephen I normally respect your work but this article is really overboard. The US has no say over used 737-300′s and what can be done with them. The fact that the Chicoms can build/modify something faster than the US military should be no surprise to you. Having worked in miliary procurement it wasn’t news to me. Navair is one of the most bureaucratic organization in the government. And Fisher’s comment about Boeing is an unsubstantiated cheap shot that doesn’t warrant repeating.

  9. Brice Barrett 18 May, 2010 at 10:33 pm #

    Actually, I think this is particularly newsworthy given the Obama administration’s push for Export Control reform. While the government may have no enforcement claim under ITAR or EAR, reform doesn’t happen in a vaccum. The politics of a bird built in the Puget Sound running any kind of mission for the PLAAF could definitely inform the process.

  10. Stephen Trimble 20 May, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    He Joe,

    It’s not a news article, and I think the discussion balances Fisher’s point of view nicely.

  11. kswap 31 May, 2010 at 7:53 am #

    gee, that explains why local Air force has to go up and see for themselves from time to time when there’s an inbound flight from China, and next year they are going to increase the air traffic up to 500 flights a week(between China), I guess everybody’s going to burn a lot of fuels, yep, this has been happening for the last 2 years. Maybe I am just a speculator with much suspensions, but the sorties are just as frequent as 30 years ago, which was a totally different time.

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