by DAVID AXE

China’s building a second aircraft carrier—a bigger, more capable flattop to take over from Liaoning, a refurbished Russian vessel that Beijing is using to learn naval aviation fundamentals.

And the new carrier could have a powerful new radar plane, thanks to China’s efforts to copy—and steal—details of the America’s own E-2 Hawkeye early-warning aircraft.

In late October, authorities in Taipei revealed that a major in the Taiwanese air force—part of a ring of up to 20 turncoats—had been caught trying to sell technical data on the E-2 to Chinese agents. Taiwan operates six of the twin-engine E-2s, which feature a large rotating radar dish atop their fuselages for detecting ships and airplanes hundreds of miles away.

Taiwan flies its Hawkeyes from land, but the U.S. and French navies use their own E-2s aboard aircraft carriers. The Northrop Grumman-built radar planes are among the most important aircraft on a flattop. Crewed by “battle managers,” they spot targets and help plot courses for jet fighters and other planes.

Rugged, compact and optimized for short takeoffs and landings, the E-2 is ideal for shipboard use. But it requires a catapult to boost it off a carrier’s deck. China’s rebuilt first flattop Liaoning does not have a catapult and therefore cannot operate large, heavy planes like the Hawkeye. But the second carrier, currently under construction, does have a catapult—if a few blurry photos are any indication.

A “cat”-equipped second carrier could carry radar planes, giving its air wing many of the same capabilities that currently only the Americans and French possess. Chinese state industry has been hard at work on a basic airframe similar in layout to the E-2. The first photos appeared in 2011—and in 2012 a miniature Hawkeye-style plane was displayed incongruously on an official-looking scale model of Liaoning.

JZY-01

That JZY-01 radar plane prototype appeared in high-resolution photos in July 2012. But it was unclear then—and remains unclear today—what kinds of internal electronic systems are installed on the JZY-01. That Beijing is trying to acquire data on Taiwan’s E-2s seems to imply that the Chinese need that information to improve the JZY-01.

Taipei is still assessing how much information the spy ring gave away and how damaging it might be. To be sure, China’s theft of the E-2 specs is consistent with the country’s wide-ranging espionage campaign targeting Western warplane development. Chinese hackers stole data from Lockheed Martin related to that firm’s F-35 stealth fighter.

That information may have contributed to Beijing’s recent production of a new stealth fighter prototype.

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