China's navy has completed the conversion of a Shaanxi Y-8 transport for airborne early warning (AEW), with radar supplied by the UK's Racal. It also carried out initial naval exercises with the aircraft.
The conversion, a major upgrade in the navy's capabilities, is the culmination of more than four years of work since reports emerged in 1996 that Racal had sold six to eight radars to China for $66 million.
Although often referred to as Searchwater, a Racal source says the radar is Skymaster, a Searchwater derivative that maintains its overwater/maritime capability, but improves resolution against targets over land.
More reports emerged in mid-1998 that the radar-equipped Y-8 was about to begin testing and initial flight tests took place in November that year.
Shaanxi began producing Y-8s - an Antonov An-12 copy - in 1990, although development started in the late 1960s. About 70 Y-8s have been built for a variety of roles.
The Skymaster is installed in a nose fairing and is claimed to give 360° coverage. The configuration is similar to that used by the smaller Britten Norman Defender twin-turboprop, which was fitted with the Skymaster for ground and maritime surveillance and AEW roles in the late 1980s.
The Chinese radar operator's station is behind the cockpit, which reduces the length of fuselage requiring pressurisation. Shaanxi has had problems pressurising the Y-8 and sought Lockheed Martin's assistance to solve the problem in the late 1980s.
Searchwater is used on UK Royal Air Force BAE Systems Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and Royal Navy GKN Westland Sea King AEW helicopters. In the latter case, it has a quoted range of 210km (110nm). The Y-8's higher operating altitudes will give the radar greater range - allowing the aircraft to track air and sea targets in the Taiwan Strait, while remaining close to the Chinese coast.
Chinese officials claim the Y-8 will be used to patrol the coast. Taiwanese officials, however, report that the aircraft was used in exercises to assist long-range targeting of anti-ship cruise missiles launched from a warship. It is claimed that the navy datalinked information from the Y-8 via a Harbin Z-9 helicopter to the warship. The datalink supplier is unknown.
In future, the navy is likely to use six Kamov Ka-28s, purchased with a Russian-built Sovremenny-class destroyer, for AEW and mid-course missile guidance, while a Beriev A-50 fitted with Phalcon radar by Israel Aircraft Industries also performs these roles.
The US Clinton Administration opposes Israel's Phalcon sale, with US Navy officials suggesting that it could be used to cue the supersonic Moskit (Sunburn) anti-ship missiles carried by the Sovremenny-class destroyer.