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China says it has developed a new radar system that can spot US stealth fighters at incredible distances

Business Insider logo Business Insider 6/12/2019 Ryan Pickrell
a airplane that is flying in the sky © US Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe

China has reportedly developed an over-the-horizon maritime early warning radar system that its creator claims can detect stealth aircraft far beyond visual range, an advanced capability that could threaten US fifth-generation fighters operating in the area.

Liu Yongtan, the team leader for the radar project, told Chinese media that his high-frequency surface wave radar emits "high frequency electromagnetic waves with long wavelengths and wide beams" that travel along the service of the sea, the Global Times reported Monday, citing a recent interview with Naval and Merchant Ships magazine.

The radar system, part of China's ongoing efforts to prevent a sneak attack by enemy stealth assets, can purportedly detect enemy air and naval threats hundreds of kilometers away in any weather condition.

The 83-year-old creator says the radar is also "immune" to anti-radiation missiles, which track the point of origin for electromagnetic waves.

Liu's radar system, which won him the country's highest scientific award, has been named China's "first line of defense."

Does it actually work?

Western experts argue that this type of radar, which is not new technology, offers the defending country a chance against incoming stealth assets, but there are limitations that prevent it from being the death of a fifth-generation fighter like the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

Read more: China could be a far more formidable US rival than the Soviet Union ever was

"Because of its very long wavelengths, it can detect objects like stealthy aircraft," Todd Harrison, an aerospace expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Business Insider, explaining that stealthy aircraft are designed to be less detectable to shortwave radar.

Major drawbacks, however, include the low resolution and lack of a real-time target-grade track. "It will tell you there's something there, but you can't characterize it," Harrison explained, adding that the radar "can't get a precise enough fix on a position to target it."

Justin Bronk, an air combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute told Business Insider that "China might be better informed about where American stealth fighters are operating in the battle space, but still unable to use those radar systems to cue in missiles to actually kill them."

But, the over-the-horizon radar does have the ability to cue other types of radar systems to narrow their field of view and concentrate their radar energy on the position where an object was detected. "You have a better chance of finding it" with the over-the-horizon radar, Harrison explained.

Another big problem with the powerful Chinese radar, though, is that it is vulnerable to attack, meaning they might only be useful in the early stages of a fight.

While they may be immune to counter-radar anti-radiation missiles, these systems are large, can be easily seen from space, and could be targeted with a GPS-guided missile. "It will help you in the initial stages of conflict, but the US will probably put a missile on the antenna sites and take it out of commission pretty quickly," Harrison said.

China's new radar system is not perfect, but it does provide early warning capabilities that could alert the country to the presence of incoming stealth assets, strengthening its defenses and potentially giving it a shot.

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