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Chinese new KJ-500 AWACS with probe to operate in South China Sea missions

A latest variant of China's Shaanxi Aircraft Corporation KJ-500 airborne early warning and control system (AWACS), equipped with a probe that can allow the plane to receive aerial refueling and greatly extend its range and endurance, was recently spotted at a naval aviation regiment base under the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, Liu Xuanzun reports on Global Times.

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Chinese new KJ 500 AWACS with probe to operate in South China Sea missions

A new KJ-500 variant is equipped with an aerial refueling probe at a naval aviation regiment base under the PLA Southern Theater Command (Picture source: Screenshot from CCTV)

The plane was identified in the background of a photo recently published by China Military Online, the English website of the Chinese military, Weihutang, a military program under China Central Television (CCTV), reported last weekend. Unlike previous KJ-500s, an aerial refueling probe can be seen above the new aircraft's nose, Weihutang said, noting that becoming capable of receiving aerial refueling will effectively solve problems, like the lack of sufficient range and endurance, which will significantly boost its combat capability. The main missions of the PLA Southern Theater Command Navy are focused on the South China Sea.

The KJ-500 is based on the Y-9 medium-sized tactical transport aircraft, which has a limited operational range and endurance compared to large, strategic transport aircraft. Air refueling can make up for this shortcoming.

The new variant, combined with aerial tankers, can cover hundreds of kilometers, and command and control other friendly aircraft in the region. The plane spotted at the naval base was painted yellow instead of naval gray, which analysts said is usually a sign the new aircraft is still undergoing tests. In addition to the aerial refueling probe, the plane should have other upgrades that have not yet been revealed, Liu Xuanzun concludes.

China started the development of the KJ-500, its third AEW&C, in the late 2000s. The KJ-500 was required to have three important features: good detection capability, good identification ability, and quick responsiveness. The KJ-500 was also required to the core force of the informatized combat system, its equipped technology has four major characteristics which are networking, multi-functionality, high-integration and light weight. The aircraft carries a fixed dorsal radome containing three AESA radar arrays for 360 degree coverage, and is said to be more efficient than the two-planar 'balance beam' array design used on the earlier KJ-200. Production of older AEW&C types have reported ceased in 2018 in response to the KJ-500 reaching full operational capability.