China has set up what appears to be a mock-up of an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) plane used by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) in a desert area of Xinjiang, Nikkei has determined, based on expert analysis of satellite photographs. The object is possibly a dummy target used for training to attack SDF aircraft with missiles.
Tom Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security (CNAS) pointed out in an interview with Nikkei Asia that the object appears to be a model of the JASDF's E-767 aircraft.
Edited excerpts from the interview follow.
Q: What do you think the objects in the satellite photo are?
A: The larger aircraft target appears to represent an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft. We have seen the PLA testing against mock AEW aircraft before, but they appeared to represent the U.S. E-3 Sentry aircraft, which have four engines. This test target only appears to have two engines. So I looked around to see what AEW aircraft [are] of that size and shape and [have] two engines, and there is one: the E-767 AWACS. It is operated by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, which is the only operator of this airframe.
Q: Why do think China's set up a mock-up of a JASDF plane?
A: I think it's mostly to test warheads. Instead of just hitting a particular location on the airfield, or having to cover the entire airfield with submunitions, it would be quite useful if they had a warhead that could pick out individual, specific high-value aircraft. My best guess is that airframe-specific targets are likely being used to test image-recognition sensors on Chinese missile warheads to develop a capability to strike specific high-value aircraft on an airfield without having to blanket the entire airfield with munitions.
Read the full interview from Nikkei Asia.