One of two brand new maritime patrol variants of the Shaanxi Y-8

The brand new maritime patrol variant of the Shaanxi Y-8 (Source: Chinese internet)

Maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) like the Lockheed P-3 Orion are assets that are taken for granted by many militaries around the world, including the defence forces of New Zealand, Australia and Japan. They are one of the most useful platforms given their surveillance, anti-submarine, search and rescue, and anti-surface capabilities. Only recently has China jumped onto the MPA bandwagon.

Historically, despite its traditional emphasis on littoral defence, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) or Air Force (PLAAF) lacked MPAs. The Harbin SH-5 flying boat was the closest available asset. Its antiquated capabilities coupled with low production rate meant it never fulfilled a true MPA role. The PLAN also operated an assortment of shore-based naval aircraft, including fighters, strike aircraft and a handful of helicopters and transport aircraft. But these could not perform the full spectrum of missions that MPAs are designed to do.

But the MPA milestone appears to have finally been achieved. Photos released on Chinese internet last month show two prototypes of the maritime patrol variant of the Y-8 transport aircraft, a flexible design that has been utilised by the Chinese military for specialised roles such as early warning and electronic warfare. The new Y-8 MPA features a magnetic anomaly detector boom-tail, a chin-mounted search radar, an belly-mounted optical sensor turret, and an internal weapons bay. While it might not be as advanced as Boeing’s P-8 or Japan’s P-1, it should be expected to be a reasonably capable and sophisticated design largely thanks to China’s competency in developing advanced avionics and electronics.

What are the implications for security in the Asia-Pacific? MPAs are not effective offensive platforms seeing that they can only be armed with anti-submarine torpedoes and short-ranged anti-ship missiles. In theory, they could enhance China’s ability to detect and track targets such as Japanese and American surface ships, providing valuable mid-course guidance to friendly ships and aircraft, enabling them to launch anti-ship cruise missiles from over the horizon. In this regard, MPAs would play an important role in China’s sea denial strategy.

However, the Y-8 MPA would perform a greater defensive function especially in anti-submarine warfare. For the first time, the Chinese navy has at its disposal a capable anti-submarine aircraft that can cover a considerable area thanks to its speed and endurance. With its on-board sensors and the potential ability to drop sonobuoys, the Y-8 MPA could guide friendly surface ships and helicopters to attack enemy submarines or even prosecute its own attacks using torpedoes and depth charges. Coupled with the PLAN’s large submarine fleet, diverse underwater mine inventory and steadily improved ship-board anti-submarine systems, Chinese MPAs could pose a formidable challenge to Japanese, American or Australian submarines operating near Chinese waters.

But observers should also see the potential for the new MPA to enhance China’s military operations other than war. On the one hand, Chinese MPAs could be used to patrol China’s exclusive economic zone. This offers a potentially useful platform for Beijing to keep a closer eye on its disputed waters particularly the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea. But China’s newly acquired MPAs could also support Beijing’s ability to contribute to regional security and humanitarian endeavours. For example, Beijing could employ its MPAs for search and rescue operations or to help combat pirates. These would be operations that would most certainly enhance safety around Asia’s waters.

It will take several years for the PLAN to develop the skills and doctrine to exploit the full potential of its newly acquired MPA. Moreover, it will take time for China’s aviation industry to produce a sizable fleet of these complex and expensive aircraft to equip the North, East and South Sea Fleets. Whatever the outcome, the important point to note is that China now operates MPAs giving its navy the full spectrum of capabilities that useful workhorses like the P-3 Orion have offered to navies in the Asia-Pacific.

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Wilson's publication, "Examining China's Participation in Bilateral and Multilateral Military Exercises", Security Challenges Journal 7, no. 3 (2011), won first prize in the Australia Defence Business Review's 2011 Young Strategic Writers' Competition (article is available for download at Wilson completed a conjoint degree in LLB (Hons) and BA (Hons) at the University of Auckland. He was a summer research scholar at the Australian National University's Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies and interned with the Lowy Institute of International Policy. His area of expertise includes the South China Sea, China-India relations, and China's military modernisation.
Wilson Chau has 11 post(s) on Asia Security Watch