The 2021 Zhuhai Airshow in China won’t officially start until next week, but setup for the event has already started and images are emerging of the aircraft and other systems that will be on display. One particularly significant arrival that has been spotted so far is an example of the J-16D electronic warfare jet, which is often compared in broad strokes to the US Navy’s EA-18G Growler. The Chinese jet has what appear to be at least three different electronic warfare modules never seen before on pylons under its wings and fuselage.
This year’s Zhuhai Airshow is the first time the J-16D will be on display to the public in any configuration, which made its appearance earlier this week to begin with. The Chinese government regularly presents new planes and highlights some advanced capabilities of existing designs at this event, which has been held every two years since 1996. This particular iteration of the show was scheduled to take place last fall but has been postponed to face to ongoing COVID. -19 pandemic.
The D-variant differs from the base J-16 in several respects, including a redesigned radome that experts and observers say could point to the aircraft equipped with advanced active electronic scanning radar (AESA). The nose-mounted infrared search and tracking system (IRST) and internal 30mm cannon found on the standard J-16 fighter have also been removed from the D version, apparently to make way for an internal electronic warfare system. robust. These changes are similar to what was also seen on the J-15D.
The jet also has a number of antennas on all sides of its fuselage and features wing tip pods that are largely reminiscent of those seen on the EA-18G. Although the exact capabilities of the J-16D’s internal electronic warfare suite are unknown, the wing tip pods of the EA-18G are part of this aircraft’s internal AN / ALQ-218 system. The complete AN / ALQ-218 suite includes a Radar Alert Receiver (RWR), Electronic Support Measures (ESM), and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) functionality, giving the Growler full capability to detect, categorize and geotag enemy radars and other hostile transmitters, as well as to collect data on the signals they emit.
While the J-16D, like the EA-18G, has long been expected to complement these on-board electronic warfare capabilities with external pods, Zhuhai’s footage appears to be the first official confirmation of this and our first look at what the jet’s full operational setup might look like. At least three different types of pods are visible. Those under the wings appear to share a similar core shape, but the example under the left wing has a number of blade-like external antennas under its front end. The pods under the fuselage look very similar to each other, but may also have some differences.
While it’s not clear what the capabilities of each of these modules might be, the fact that the Chinese are developing multiple types for the J-16D makes perfect sense. The EA-18G currently uses two variations of the AN / ALQ-99 pod, one of which is designed to jam high-band transmitters, while the other focuses on low-band transmitters. The US Navy is now in the process of developing a new family of electronic warfare pods for the Growler, which adds a mid-band focused type. You can read more about the Navy’s Next Generation Jammer (NGJ) program here.
Having multiple modules optimized for different frequency bands offers advantages for attacking specific types of threats and electronic systems, such as fire control radars which generally operate at higher frequencies. Having more than one pod combined with an internal electronic warfare suite could give the J-16D the ability to engage more transmitters at once, while also picking up other useful information. If one or more of these pods are themselves focused on other electronic intelligence capabilities, such as communications intelligence (COMINT), this would also give the jet valuable additional intelligence gathering capabilities and a better ability to scramble the specific systems the pod is focusing on. We’ve seen this with the Marine Corps’ Intrepid Tiger family of podded electronic warfare and intelligence systems, for example. It should also be noted that an aircraft so equipped can potentially trigger cyber attacks on air defense and communications systems, as well as provide electronic attacks and broad jamming support.
The J-16D is also just one of a growing number of electronic warfare aircraft, including larger types based on cargo aircraft designs, also available for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). . The Chinese military also has various self-protected electronic warfare modules that can be used on other fighter jets and bombers. This reflects, in many ways, the layered aerial electronic warfare capabilities the US military deploys, with aircraft like the EA-18G providing longer-range support to tactical aircraft, including stealth types, with their own organic abilities that operate in enemy air. – defense bubbles. The larger platforms then provide additional jamming support.
It’s not at all difficult to see a future where J-16Ds carrying a range of electronic warfare pods will play a similar role to the EA-18G when working with non-stealth fighter jets, such than other J-16s, and the stealth J-20, among other types. The J-16Ds could potentially launch kinetic attacks directly at transmitters using anti-radiation missiles, just like the Growler. It is also not surprising that the PLA is seeking to establish this type of comprehensive electronic warfare capability, as well as additional capabilities on land and at sea, given the security environment that the Beijing government envisions in the area. future both regionally and more globally.
Support for electronic air warfare would almost certainly be a major factor in any major Chinese military intervention across the Taiwan Strait, given the island’s significant air defense capabilities. These would be important capabilities to bring to bear in any larger-scale conflict against larger potential adversaries in the wider Indo-Pacific region, such as India or even the United States.
Again this week, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall specifically cited electronic warfare capabilities as one of the areas where the Chinese have focused on “increasing inventory levels and the sophistication of their weapons and upgrading redundant systems throughout the destruction chains that support their weapons. ”Air Force Lt. Gen. Clint Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements , also said just days ago that “we are running out of time” for the PLA to catch up with the capabilities of the U.S. military. men spoke at this year’s annual air conference, space and cybersecurity, hosted by the Air Force Association in Washington, DC
All in all, while we don’t know the exact capabilities of the J-16D, or the recently unveiled pods that have been developed to go with it, the jet clearly reflects a broad push by the PLA to develop new, robust ones. electronic warfare assets as part of its broader modernization efforts.
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