The photos first appeared January 26 on the website Weibo, showing the model in China’s Hubei Province near Wuhan, looking similar to the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye AEW&C aircraft.
Some suggest that the pictures point to Beijing developing an aircraft-carrier equipped with catapult-assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR), as a catapult would be required for a E-2 Hawkeye-type craft to take off from an aircraft carrier.
As a result the aircraft could not operate from a carrier like China’s Liaoning, a short takeoff but arrested recovery carrier (STOBAR).
Images implying upgrades to Chinese military have proven true at least twice last year. After pictures showing China’s Type 002 carrier undergoing modifications surfaced in August 2016 it was later revealed that the vessel was in fact being outfitted with catapults.
In mid-September 2016, photos of a Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) J-15 in flight cropped up, also showing changes, in this case to the undercarriage, which would help it conduct takeoffs with the assistance of a catapult.
Currently there are multiple AEW&C programs under the People’s Liberation Army, as a craft integrated onto a carrier may help make future vessels more versatile, perhaps bringing them closer to US naval technology.