Images posted on online forums show what appears to be a full-scale model of a Chinese navalised airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft on China's land-based carrier mock-up: an indication that the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is seeking to equip a future carrier with such aircraft.
Published on the social media platform Weibo on 26 January, the images show the model, which looks similar to the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye AEW&C aircraft, near the city of Wuhan, in China's central Hubei Province.
The photographs are seen as a yet another indication that China is looking to develop a catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR)-equipped aircraft carrier.
The reason behind this assumption is that an E-2 Hawkeye-type aircraft would need a catapult to take off from an aircraft carrier and could therefore not operate from a short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) carrier, such as China's only operational carrier, Liaoning.
Expectations that China's third carrier, which is commonly referred to as the Type 002, will be equipped with catapults were reinforced in early August 2016 when images emerged showing the country's land-based aircraft carrier mock-up undergoing modifications. Most significantly, its ski-jump section had been removed.
Moreover, on 15 September images were released of a Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) J-15 in flight featuring what appeared to be modifications to its front undercarriage that would enable the aircraft to conduct catapult-assisted take-offs.
The Chinese military has multiple AEW&C programmes under way. The development of a carrier-borne AEW&C aircraft may provide the country's future carriers with a broader spectrum of capabilities possibly matching those of US carrier air wings.
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