MELBOURNE, Australia — China has deployed its latest airborne early warning and control aircraft to an air base on the fringes of the disputed South China Sea, according to exclusive satellite imagery obtained by Defense News.

The photo taken March 24 by commercial satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe shows a pair of Shaanxi KJ-500 turboprop AEW&C aircraft with its distinctive radar dish on the ground at Jialaishi Air Base in the northern part of China's Hainan island. Two other Y-8 aircraft — an older KJ-200 AEW&C aircraft, and the other possibly a Y-8J or Y-8X maritime patrol aircraft — can be seen alongside the KJ-500s.

This is the first time the KJ-500 has been deployed to Hainan, with China having previously rotationally deployed special mission aircraft detachments to the island. These detachments are drawn from two special-mission aircraft regiments of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, based in northern China. The detachments are usually made up of a mixture of KJ-200 AEW&C aircraft with Y-8Js and Y-8Xs, and they tend to operate from Lingshui on the southeastern tip of Hainan. 

This March 24 image shows a pair of Shaanxi KJ-500 turboprop AEW&C aircraft at Jialaishi Air Base in the northern part of China's Hainan island.

Photo Credit: DigitalGlobe

However, Lingshui is currently undergoing large-scale construction work to improve its aircraft parking and possibly dispersal facilities, which would have forced the detachment to at least temporarily relocate. The March 24 image is the first time multiple Y-8s and/or Y-9s have been observed at Jialaishi.

Jialaishi is one of three major PLAN air bases in Hainan, which is located on the northern fringes of the South China Sea and its disputed islands. The three bases are normally home to three regiments of Shenyang J-11B Flanker fighters and a single regiment of Xi'an JH-7 fighter-bombers, from which they have been used on occasion to intercept U.S. military flights operating in nearby international airspace. 

The KJ-500 is the latest AEW&C aircraft to be fielded by China and is expected to eventually replace the older KJ-200s currently in service. It is based on the Shaanxi Y-9 turboprop and carries a dorsal radar dish mounting an indigenous phased array radar with three fixed arrays angled at 120 degrees relative to each other for all-round coverage. Smaller radar arrays are carried on the nose and rear fuselage for additional coverage.

A satellite communications dome is mounted on top of the KJ-500's radar dish along with side-looking electronic intelligence panels on both sides of the fuselage for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. The type entered service with the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force in late 2014 or early 2015, with six KJ-500s known to have been delivered as of January 2017, including at least two for the PLAN.

Unverified photos of the PLAN's KJ-500s have indicated that they are carrying serial numbers belonging to the Hainan-based 9th Naval Air Division, which if true would represent a departure from the previous PLAN practice of assigning AEW&C aircraft to special-mission naval aviation units. It would also suggest that these aircraft would be permanently stationed in Hainan instead of being assigned there on temporary rotations.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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