Recent photo and video evidence shows developments in Chinese early warning aircraft and stealth fighter jets. Currently, Chinese navy aircraft carriers must rely on helicopters for their airborne early warning system

China has stepped up efforts to develop its next generation of ship-based warplanes for its new aircraft carriers, with recent photos revealing Beijing’s progress in developing early warning aircraft and stealth fighter jets.

A video circulating on Chinese social media this week showed the KJ-600 – China’s first fixed-wing early warning plane capable of operating on the carriers – on a test flight over the north-western city of Xian, where its manufacturer, Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation, is based.

The KJ-600 made its first flight in August 2020. And the latest online pictures showed a plane in green and white paint – suggesting it was still a prototype – and on its nose was a protruding pitot tube, which is used to measure airspeed.

The aircraft is believed to have active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars and is, in many ways, aimed at matching the Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is equipped with land-based early warning aircraft KJ-2000 and KJ-500. But currently, Chinese navy aircraft carriers must rely on helicopters for their airborne early warning system.

Once the KJ-600 enters service with much improved range, speed and payload, it could greatly enhance the carrier strike group’s situational awareness.

It could also be key to communication in the battlefield command chain and data link network, and even be used to guide missiles fired from destroyers on from the land in over-the-horizon attacks.

Although the twin turboprop engine-driven KJ-600 probably cannot be operated on the ski-jump deck of the Liaoning and Shandong, the PLA Navy’s two active Kuznetsov-class carriers, it is very probably suitable for use on the next-gen carriers.

China’s third aircraft carrier, Fujian, which was launched last month, has three advanced electromagnetic catapults. Last year, Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, the maker of China’s current carrier-borne fighter, the J-15, released its catapult-capable variant.

The news about KJ-600 followed last week’s leak of a photo that was believed to show the next ship-based stealth fighter. An unverified photo revealed a twin-jet single-seat FC-31 fighter on the ground with its cockpit canopy open.

Painted in PLA Navy grey, with serial number 350003, the 35 and 03 in different positions likely suggest it is the third prototype and that this variant for the navy would be named J-35.

The original medium-weight FC-31 is China’s second stealth fighter after the heavyweight J-20, and the first positioned for an overseas market. Its maiden flight was in 2012 but since at least 2019 later prototypes were observed to have significant changes and were rumoured to be adapted for the carriers.

The first high-resolution picture of the J-35 showed some resemblance to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning-II and it appears to be fitted with home-made WS-21 engines.

In addition, a J-15D, the electronic attack variant of the “Flying Shark”, was seen for the first time on board the Shandong in official publicity footage of the carrier’s training in March. With some armaments removed and replaced with electronic warfare pods and other electronic equipment, the J-15D is designed to detect, track, interfere and suppress enemy radar and other electronic communication, to provide protection for the ship-borne fighter fleets.

J-15D began operational tests in 2018. Its deployment on the carrier made China the second country to have specialised ship-based electronic warfare planes.