MELBOURNE, Australia — China has deployed its newest anti-submarine aircraft and stepped up unmanned aircraft deployments to Hainan island on the fringes of the South China Sea, according to satellite imagery obtained by Defense News.
Satellite photos taken on May 10 and May 20 by commercial satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe showed four Shaanxi Y-8Q turboprop aircraft with its distinctive magnetic anomaly detector boom parked on the ground at Lingshui Air Base in the southeastern part of China’s Hainan island.
In addition, two KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft were also seen at Lingshui on both occasions. Defense News had previously reported on the deployment of the KJ-500 to Hainan at nearby Jialaishi Air Base that had been seen on satellite photos taken in March, which was the first time the KJ-500 had been seen deployed by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN.
Lingshui is one of three PLAN air bases in Hainan, which is the southernmost province of China and borders the northern edge of the South China Sea. The three bases are normally home to three regiments of Shenyang J-11B Flanker fighters and a single regiment of Xian JH-7 fighter-bombers, from which they have been used on occasion to intercept routine U.S. military flights operating in nearby international airspace.
The Y-8Q is the newest maritime patrol aircraft to be fielded by China and the first combat-capable PLAN aircraft of this type, boasting of improved anti-submarine warfare capabilities that the older Y-8J and Y-8X lacked. It is based on an improved Shaanxi Y-8 airlifter airframe with improved turboprop engines and high-efficiency, six-bladed propellers.
It has been suggested that the Y-8Q also has fuselage sonobuoy dispensers and hardpoints on the wings for anti-ship missiles, although Defense News has yet to see evidence of this.
Two prototype Y-8Qs were seen in late 2011 and started test flights with the China Flight Test Establishment in late 2012. Also known as the GX-6 under China’s GaoXin special-mission aircraft-designation system, the first production aircraft were seen at Shaanxi’s Hanzhong factory in early 2015 and believed to have entered service with the PLAN later that year, although this has not been confirmed.
Like the PLAN’s KJ-500s, unverified photos of the Y-8Qs have indicated that they are carrying serial numbers belonging to the Hainan-based 9th Naval Air Division, which lends further credence that these aircraft would be permanently stationed in Hainan instead of being assigned there on temporary rotations per previous practice.