The ZDK-03 system is an advanced Airborn Warning and Control System with sophisticated integrated sensors and communications suite. Pakistan Air Force had signed a contract in 2008 with CETC of China for the joint development of 04 ZDK-03 aircraft configured to Pakistan Air Force specifications .
By S.M. Hali
AIR Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman, currently on a visit to China to attend the roll out ceremony in Hanzhong for the first ZDK-03 aircraft designed specifically for PAF has declared that the induction of Chinese-made airborne warning and control system aircraft in the Pakistan Air Force beginning next year will bring about a “revolution” in air defence operations. He announced that PAF has plans to induct four Shaanxi ZDK-03 AWACS aircraft, which have been named the “Karakoram Eagle” in its inventory. He said countries without AWACS aircraft mostly rely on ground-based radar systems that have “very serious limitations in terms of their surveillance and detection”. Highlighting the importance of the AWACS, Suleman said they can detect “any object flying from the enemy side and you can take action to counter the threat. There are very few countries in the world having AWACS technology in their air forces,” he said. Suleman further said that the delivery of AWACS aircraft from Sweden to Pakistan has also begun and the Chinese-made surveillance planes will begin joining the PAF from the first quarter of next year.
The ZDK-03 system is an advanced Airborne Warning and Control System with sophisticated integrated sensors and communications suite. Pakistan Air Force had signed a contract in 2008 with CETC of China for the joint development of 04 ZDK-03 AWACS aircraft configured to Pakistan Air Force specifications. ZDK-03 began its life in early 2000s as Project 021. It’s one of many AWACS development programs China undertook after the PHACLON deal with Israel had to be dropped under US pressure. Unlike the KJ-2000 project which depends on the development of a new Chinese AESA radar, Project 021 took the safer route, aimed at perfecting mature technology existing in China. It was designed to satisfy PLA’s combat needs in any contingency over Taiwan. After the success of KJ-2000, Project 021 saw continued development as a potential export model. Although employing older technologies it is a full-fledged AWACS rather than AEWs Western countries are exporting. The 021 prototype was checked out by PAF but ZDK-03, the version sold to Pakistan, is an extensive redevelopment of the original Project 021 with newer designs and technologies. ZDK-03 AEW&C Karakoram Eagle has single active electronically steered array radar from the Chinese KJ-2000 which is mounted on a turboprop-powered Y-8F600 in a rotating rotodome. Chinese KJ-2000 AWACS based on the IL-76 carries AESA Radar within its fixed rotodome in a triangular arrangement to provide a 360 degree coverage, on the other hand ZDK03 AEW&C Karakoram Eagle have a conventional rotating rotodome very much like that of E-3 and E-2C/D to provide a 360 degree coverage. It uses both mechanical scanning (for horizontal) and electronic scanning (for vertical). Its Communication System is also custom built for PAF. In order to make sure ZDK-03 communicate with both Western and Chinese planes in PAF, the communication systems on ZDK-03 uses a number of off the shelf Western components integrated by Chinese engineers with Chinese frontends and software. A comprehensive ECM has also been designed for the ZDK-203 to add versatility and teeth to PAF’s Air Defence System. Its Command and Control system is also state-of-the-art and highly sophisticated. The platform uses WJ6C turboprop engines and JL-4 composite propellers, which has better endurance and operates at higher altitude than the Swedish SAAB 2000 AEW platform acquired earlier by PAF.
PAF plans to integrate both the Karakoram Eagle and the SAAB 2000 Erieye with its frontline fighters F-16 and JF-17 Thunder to develop a potent air defence system which can also deliver a knockout punch to any adversary. The induction of the ZDK-203 into PAF is another milestone in the exemplary history of cooperation between Pakistan and China. It was because of the high performance and low cost of this AEW&C system that prompted PAF to reduce its order for the Saab-2000 AEW&C Erieye from 6 to 4 systems.
Pakistan’s reliance on its all weather friend China has been proved once again by the provision of the Karakoram Eagle. For years, Chinese defence industry suffered from the embargo by the western countries for releasing technology to China. It was forced to rely on the Soviet Union, whose defence industry was lagging behind the west. Even when China’s economy was booming and it was able to afford western technology; it was denied access to the same under one pretext or the other. This in a way was a boon since Chinese engineers, started with reverse engineering and soon mastered the art of indigenization. Pakistan has greatly benefited from the Chinese principles of self reliance and a number of its joint ventures with China, like the Main Battle Tanks, Destroyers, trainers and fighter aircraft resulted from the same spirit of sharing and transfer of technology.
Airborne Early Warning Systems were one area, where China endeavoured to build on acquisition from the west and take advantage of its advanced prowess in the field. It planned to purchase the Israeli Phalcon Radar and mount it on the Russian IL-76. However, Israel was deterred by the US although India, which pitches itself as a rival of China in the region, was granted permission by the US to acquire the same. Pakistan too, being a frontline state in the war against terror and a US ally aspired to acquire the E-3 Sentry but was refused because of increasing Indian pressure on the US. Thus both China and Pakistan had been denied frontline AEW systems by the US, however, not to be deterred; China has not only developed its independent system but has also enabled Pakistan to benefit from its entrepreneurship. The acquisition of the Karakoram Eagle is not just a milestone but a symbol of the trust, goodwill, amity and brotherly ties between Pakistan and China. It also clearly indicates that both countries can together withstand and thwart the imperialistic designs by any would be aggressor in the region. One can only hope and pray that good sense prevails with the national leadership and they can look inwards and towards Pakistan’s time tested friend China, to ensure, credible and impregnable defence systems for Pakistan.