Shaanxi_Y-8
The Shaanxi Y-8 airframe has proven popular as an ELINT gathering platform for both the PLAAF and PLAN.

A new report sheds some important light on China’s operational and strategic airborne electronic warfare platforms.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF’s) Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities are enigmatic at the best of times. Any scholarly analysis helping to shed light on these shadowy capabilities is eagerly grasped by anyone with an interest in the military acumen of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Fortunately, the US Air Force’s Air University at Maxwell airbase, Alabama has provided some welcome insight via a new report published by its China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI).

November 2020 saw the release of the Chinese Airborne C4ISR publication written by analysts Peter Wood and Dr. Roger Cliff. The report draws on Chinese language sources including official publications, scholarly articles and studies, and news reports. It takes a detailed look at the PLAAF’s command and control, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities notably the PLAAF’s and People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) operational and strategic Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathering platforms.

Platforms

The report states that the PLAAF and PLAN fly two types of operational/strategic level Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) gathering aircraft in the form of the Shaanxi Y-8CB/JB. Four Y-8CBs are believed to be in service with the PLAAF with the same number of Y-8JBs flown by the PLAN.

The report says that both types deploy the BM/KZ800 ELINT system of unknown manufacture. This may cover a waveband of one gigahertz/GHz to 18GHz and offer detection ranges of up to 162 nautical miles (300 kilometres). Usefully for both the PLAAF and PLAN, and the PRC armed forces in general, this would give both aircraft the wherewithal to ‘hoover up’ ELINT from naval surveillance radars used by the US and her allies transmitting in L-band (1.215GHz to 1.4GHz), S-band (2.3GHz to 2.5GHz/2.7GHz to 3.7GHz) and C-band (5.25GHz to 5.925GHz). Given that any future conflict involving the US and allied powers in the region and the PRC will almost certainly include a significant maritime dimension, collecting ELINT on opposing naval radar systems will be indispensable, particularly for the PLAN.

The BM/KZ800’s bandwidth will also enable these aircraft to collect ELINT concerning fire control radars transmitting in X-band (8.5GHz to 10.68GHz) and Ku-band (13.4GHz to 14GHz/15.7GHz to 17.7GHz). This intelligence will be vital to developing techniques and waveforms to jam hostile fire control radars. As ground-based air surveillance radars protecting the airspace of China’s regional rivals routinely transmit in frequencies stretching from L-band to C-band ELINT collected by the PLAAF’s Y-8CB planes will help the PLAAF to develop techniques and waveforms to jam these radars, and help the drafting of red force electronic orders of battle enabling PLAAF aircrews to plan ingress and egress routes to and from their targets exploiting lightly defended airspace.

The report continues that the PLAN has supplemented its Y-8JB planes with the newer Shaanxi Y-9JZ believed to have a more advanced ELINT collection system and a larger number of antennas compared to the legacy Y-8JB. This may improve the direction-finding accuracy for emitters of interest while the addition of optronics could allow the aircrew to match emissions with specific platforms.

Space SIGINT

While many of the PRC’s military space assets are shrouded in secrecy, the report sheds some light on Chinese space-based SIGINT platforms. The PRC may have eight SIGINT gathering satellites in its Shijian-6 and eight in its Shijian-11 constellations. The five satellites of the Tongxin Jishu Shiyan (TJS) constellation launched from 2015 may have some SIGINT collection attributes although the exact purpose of these spacecraft remains unknown.

It seems likely that the PRC use the Shijian-6/11 constellations, and possibly the TJS constellation, to collect raw civilian and military SIGINT which is transmitted to Earth for analysis. In the military context, this may provide rough details and locations of emitters of interest. PLAAF/PLAN assets like the Y-8CB/JB and Y-9JZ aircraft can then take and closer look and gather more detailed intelligence.

While much of the PLAAF’s and PLAN’s electronic warfare capabilities remain opaque, this new report not only provides a good overview of China’s posture in this domain, but gives an insight into the importance it places on EW in its wider airpower doctrines.

by Dr. Thomas Withington