Unconfirmed reports claimed that so far two KJ-2000s [the Chinese designation for their AWACS aircraft] (one based on A-50I, one converted from a PLAAF/CUA IL-76MD Candid) have been delivered to the PLAAF for operational evaluation and tests. A total of four aircraft may eventually be built, either on new A-50s purchased from Russia, or directly converted locally from the existing IL-76s in service with the PLAAF.Significance
According to Richard Fischer (quoted in WaPo article):
After the 2000 Israeli fiasco [discussed below], the PLA made it a matter of high pride to prove to the Americans they would not be denied AWACS.In addition to the prestige issue, AWACS improves China's early warning and command and control (C2) capabilities. It is too early to know definitively the capabilities of this new platform, but this much is sure: If the KJ-2000s turn out to be even remotely as capable as the American E-3 Sentry or even Taiwan's E-2 Hawkeye, then we can expect to see significant improvements in the capabilities of the PLAAF and PLANAF, especially in air interdiction. We also may see the PLAAF training more frequently in poor weather, something they rarely do at present.
The "2000 Israeli fiasco" mentioned above was when America discovered plans for Israel to provide Phalcon phased-array radar systems, mounting them in IL76 aircraft already in Chinese possession. The Clinton administration impressed upon Israel the negative impact the deal would have on US-Israel relations causing Israel to cancel the deal, which was worth 250 million US dollars per plane. Israel removed all Israeli technology from the aircraft and returned the aircraft to China, by way of Russia, in their original condition. (For more on America, China, and Israel triangular relations, see my previous post on the subject.)
Indigenously Produced AWACs... Really?
China claims to have indigenously developed the AWACs technology on its KJ-2000s at the Nanjing Electronic Technology Research Institute (also known as the 'Number 14 Institute'), but there is ample cause for skepticism.
One possible explanation is that the research institute was able to get a copy of a functional AWACs system and simply reverse engineered the system. China is currently in the process of purchasing Russian A-50s. According to the WaPo article above:
It is not known whether any of the Russian craft were ever delivered, which would have provided a look at the technology, or whether the technicians obtained help from Israeli or Russian counterparts.Another possibility is that the PLA bought the system piece-by-piece or simply had a significant amount of foreign help in research, development, and production of the system. As noted by a Jane's Defence Weekly report (available here):
[T]here is a strong possibility of outside assistance, perhaps from Russia.... Taiwanese sources allege that a secret A-50Eh deal was concluded with Russia last year.A third possible explanation is represented by Bill Gertz would likely attribute this advanced capability to China's espionage capabilities, which may also have played a role in the development of this system.
However China acquired this capability, it supports the assertion of the report quoted in the Gertz article:
Predictions a decade ago of slow Chinese [science and technology] progress have now proved to be false.For those that view China as a threat, the only thing more threatening in this news than China's improved warning and C2 capabilities is the possibility that China's research, development, and acquisitions (RD&A) capabilities have improved to the point that they did truly develop this technology indigenously. Unlikely, but worrying all the same.