The Y-8Q (also known as the Y-8GX6), is the Chinese Navy’s first true modern maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) capable of performing anti submarine warfare (ASW) missions in line with ASW MPAs of other international navies.
Despite having a Y-8 prefix, the Y-8Q is actually based upon the modernized Y-9 tactical airlifter (sometimes used interchangeably with the Y-8 Category III platform), rather than the older Y-8. The major differences between Y-8 and Y-9 lie in the Y-9’s improved engines (featuring upgraded WJ-6C turboprops rate at 5,100 ehp with six bladed JL-4 high efficiency blades, compared to the older four blade turboprop on Y-8s), as well as featuring a modern glass cockpit with modern avionics, and improved cargo handling bay as well. Y-9 can thus be viewed to Y-8 as C-130J is viewed to older C-130 variants.
The “Q” suffix of Y-8Q, refers to the Chinese word “qian” which is likely short for “qian shiu ting” (submarine), thus asserting the ASW nature of the Y-8Q. The Y-8GX6 designation is a reference to the aircraft being the sixth of the “GaoXin” (High New) special mission aircraft based off the Y-8/9 platform. Other aircraft of the “GaoXin” family include the Y-8W/Y-8GX5 AEW&C aircraft, as well as the Y-9JB/Y-9GX8 ELINT/SIGINT aircraft.
Until recently, the Chinese Navy has not been a technologically advanced or even competitive navy when compared to its likely adversaries. Prior to its modernization drive which began in the early 2000s, the Chinese Navy was fielding obsolete capabilities in many domains of naval warfare, including anti surface, anti air, and anti submarine. Since then, the Chinese Navy has made great strides in anti surface and anti air capabilities – however its anti submarine capabilities have somewhat lagged behind in the modernization drive, despite the introduction of many ASW capable surface combatants, and that is due to the lack of a true ASW MPA. The Chinese Navy had fielded small numbers of SH-5 amphibious aircraft as an intended MPA aircraft, as well as the Y-8X with certain MPA capabilities, but both lacked the comprehensive sensors and weapons needed in a true ASW MPA, setting the stage for Y-8Q.
An ASW MPA variant of Y-8 had been speculated for much of the 2000s, but prototypes were only sighted in late 2011. The relative lateness of the appearance of a Chinese Naval ASW MPA may reflect increasing confidence of the Chinese military in its ability to contest airspace beyond its borders in the East and South China Seas where ASW MPAs would most likely operate. The appearance of Y-8Q may also reflect the Navy’s approval of the maturity and performance of vital subsystems necessary for a true ASW MPA, which may include sonobuoys, surface search radar, datalinks, and weapons integration.
The first Y-8Q entered service in late 2015, appearing in Chinese Naval Aviation grey. At time of writing, it is estimated that at least two aircraft have been delivered to the Chinese Navy, but it is unlikely that they have reached initial operating capability. Furthermore, it will likely take a number of years until sufficient numbers of Y-8Qs are in service to provide robust availability of aircraft, and even longer for the Navy to develop the institutional knowledge, competency and doctrine in its ASW MPA mission crews that will allow them to prosecute submarines of potential adversaries near China’s periphery (namely quiet US Navy nuclear submarines and Japanese diesel submarines).
Dimensions and Layout
At present, no official specifications for Y-8GX6 have been released, however some specifications for the Y-9 aircraft it is based on do exist, and a consensus exists that the Y-9 has a wingspan of 38 meters, and a length of some 36 meters. Y-8Q thus likely features a similar wingspan to Y-9, but a substantially greater length due to its 8 meter long tail mounted magnetic anomaly detector (MAD), which likely gives the Y-8Q a total length of about 46 meters. A variety of open sources also place Y-9’s MTOW as about 77 tons, though some list higher overload MTOWs of about 80 tons, and Y-8Q’s MTOW is likely to be similar.
By comparison, the US Navy’s P-8 Poseidon has a length of 39 meters (it is worth noting USN P-8s are not equipped with a tail MAD), a wingspan of 37.6 meters, and a MTOW of 86 tons. The P-3 Orion in turn has a length of 35.6 meters, a wingspan of 30.4 meters, and a MTOW of 64.4 tons. The Japanese P-1 has a length of 38 meters, a wingspan of 35.4 meters, and a MTOW of 79.7 tons.
The performance of an MPA is strongly dependent on the platform’s range, endurance, and maximum take-off weight (MTOW). Simply put, a longer range and endurance allows an MPA to patrol at greater distances for greater duration on station, and a greater MTOW allows an MPA to carry more sensors, more weapons, more mission consoles, more personnel, and more amenities for the personnel.
Therefore, it is possible to extrapolate rough range and endurance performance from Y-8Q’s dimensions in context to similar other ASW MPAs. Indeed, the closest international peer to Y-8Q is probably the SC-130J proposal by Lockheed Martin, which envisages the insertion of ASW and MPA subsystems into the C-130J airframe. Lockheed Martin claims a mission radius of 462 nautical miles with 11.1 hours on station, or 940 nmi radius with 8.3 hours on station, or a 1325 nmi radius with 4 hours on station. Y-8Q may feature similar range and endurance, which would make it a very capable ASW MPA for the Chinese Navy’s likely requirements for operating near China’s periphery.
The Y-8Q features two ventral weapons bays, and as part of its ASW mission, it would likely carry air-dropped airborne torpedoes. The number of torpedoes carried internally is difficult to judge, but a cutaway diagram from semi-official Warship Knowledge magazine (published by the China State Ship Building Corporation), suggests each bay can carry four torpedoes for a total of eight. The weapon bays are likely also capable of carrying depth charges and air dropped mines.
It is also common for MPAs to carry anti ship cruise missiles as part of their weapons loadout, but as of yet, Y-8Q has yet to be sighted with wing mounted racks for such missiles. It is also possible for Y-8Q to carry smaller diameter or folding wing AShMs within its weapons bay, but such an arrangement would likely limit Y-8Q to only carry smaller (and thus lighter and shorter range) missiles.
Typical sensors and avionics of an ASW MPA include a surface search radar, an electro-optic/infrared sensor turret, sonobuoy launchers and a large number of sonobuoys carried internally, datalinks to communicate with sonobuoys as well as friendly forces, passive electronic support measures (ESM), and a magnetic anomaly detector (although it is worth mentioning that the USN has not installed a MAD aboard its P-8s in favour of reducing weight, but also claiming improved sonobuoys provide greater capability such that MADs are not needed).
The Y-8Q is equipped with the following sensors:
-A large surface search radar is mounted on its chin. It is unknown whether the radar is able to provide 360 degree coverage, or is limited to coverage of the forward aspect like the P-8 and P-3. The radar is likely to be a mechanically mounted, phased array type, given recent offerings from the Chinese radar industry.
-An EO/IR sensor turret is mounted on Y-8Q’s belly, between the forward landing gear and the weapons bays.
-Four sonobuoy launch tubes have also been identified, between the rear landing gear and the weapons bays. These are likely to be reloadable from the aircraft’s cabin, where sonobuoys are stored in racks. Indeed, this is how the cutaway diagram from Warship Knowledge magazine depicts it, and is a logical arrangement similar to that of other modern ASW MPAs.
-A variety of antennae are visible mounted on Y-8Q’s belly fuselage, and there are likely a number of less visible conformal antennae around the aircraft as well. The role of these antennae likely include datalinking to sonobuoys, datalinking to friendly manned forces, datalinking to provide midcourse guidance for long range missiles, and some antennae likely are ESM sensors as part of the aircraft’s signals intelligence suite and defensive aids suite. Up to four optical apertures around the aircraft are likely to be Missile Approach Warning Sensors.
-A very large MAD tailsting is the most distinctive feature aboard Y-8Q.
-Last but not least, Y-8Q also features two half-spherical observation ports on both sides of the aircraft’s aft fuselage, where the human eyeball is still very useful for search and rescue missions.
Of course, it goes without saying that it is impossible to judge just how all these vital sensors and avionics aboard Y-8Q compare with that of international competitors. However, the comprehensive nature of the sensors suggests the Navy is serious about pursuing a truly capable ASW MPA.
Y-8Q likely also features a number of multirole mission consoles in its mission cabin, along with a mission planning area, and a rest area featuring bunks for long duration missions. Curiously, the cutaway diagram from Warship Knowledge magazine depicts at least five consoles arranged in Y-8Q’s cabin in a non-adjacent manner, more similar to the arrangement of legacy P-3 variants rather than modern ASW MPAs where all consoles are arranged in a single line.
Previous Y-8/9 derived surveillance aircraft including the ZDK-03 for Pakistan and the KJ-200/Y-8W/Y-8GX5 all feature consoles arranged in a single line, therefore whether the actual Y-8Q features a different arrangement is a question which will only be answered once actual photos of its interior are released.
Role in Chinese navy:
The Y-8Q fills a significant gap in ASW capability that the Chinese Navy has suffered, arguably since its inception. A large fleet of mature, well operated Y-8Qs will provide the Chinese Navy the ability to provide persistent and long range aerial surveillance and prosecution of opposing submarines, either independently or in conjunction with shipborne and rotary wing ASW forces.
But it will likely be a number of years until the Chinese Navy is truly able to master the science and art of ASW, not to mention a number of years until they acquire sufficient numbers of aircraft to reliably conduct ASW missions at a high pace.
It is difficult to say how many Y-8Qs will ultimately be produced, but it is not unreasonable to expect a final fleet count approaching 100 or even more when compared to similar ASW MPA fleets by the US and Japan. When accounting for the vastness of China’s near seas and also the calibre of undersea foes they are facing in the USN and JMSDF’s submarine fleets, as well as the potential risk of attrition and losses during wartime, a fleet of 100 or more may indeed be a minimum requirement.
It is even more difficult to guess how many Y-8Qs will be produced on an annual basis. Y-8Qs are produced on the same line as Y-9s and other Y-9 derived GaoXin aircraft, by Shaanxi Aircraft Corporation. Demand for Y-8Q production slots would therefore likely have to compete with other currently produced Y-9 variants, which includes AEW&C, EW/ECM, SIGINT, and of course the standard tactical airlifter variants – all of which are capabilities the Chinese military requires.
Y-8Q would also likely operate in a number of other important roles beyond ASW, including that of general maritime patrol, potential anti surface warfare (depending on integration of anti ship missiles), conducting electronic surveillance missions by virtue of its expected ESM suite, providing midcourse guidance for friendly long range anti ship missiles, as well as more benign search and rescue tasks and disaster monitoring and assistance.
Finally, it is likely that the Y-8Q may eventually be succeeded in production by a new ASW MPA derived from the COMAC 919 narrow body civilian airliner, which was recently rolled out. The C919 currently includes a number of non-Chinese subsystems, most importantly in its engines and avionics, therefore any military variants of C919 would require all subsystems to be Chinese produced, due to western military sanctions on China. Once a fully Chinese C919 is produced, militarized variants will likely follow. A C919 derived ASW MPA would likely closely resemble the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, or the A319/A320 MPA proposal by Airbus. A jet powered ASW MPA would feature improve improved performance at higher altitude performance, while a turboprop powered ASW MPA features improved lower altitude performance.
The Y-8Q/GX6 ASW MPA is a vital new platform for the Chinese Navy in its goal to attain true ASW capability, and given the threat of modern, quiet submarines faced by the Chinese military, the importance of Y-8Q could arguably be placed on the same level of urgency and impact as the J-20 stealth fighter, the military’s AEW&C programmes, or the Y-20 strategic transport.
However, it will be a number of years until the Chinese Navy truly learns to operate its ASW MPA fleet, and demand for Y-8Q production will also be challenged by demand for production of other Y-9 variants.
Despite those nuances, Y-8Q is without a doubt an essential new aircraft for the Chinese Navy and Chinese military overall, and its ASW capability will place increased pressure on unfriendly submarines operating near China’s coast and beyond. The influence of Y-8Q will likely grow in coming years as more are produced, and as the Navy becomes more confident in operating the fleet at longer distances over international waters near China.