The photo, thought to have been taken by a spotter, shows a new ELINT aircraft based on the Shaanxi Y-8 “Category-III Platform” airframe. The aircraft features a large nose radome, a smaller under-chin radome (for surface-search radar), small fairings on wingtips and the tip of the vertical tail fin, and two large antenna arrays on either side of the fuselage. It can be assumed that the aircraft has been developed under the ‘Gaoxin’ (High New) programme, which had introduced seven types of Y-8-based special-purpose aircraft for EW, ELINT, AEW&C and ASW roles for the PLAAF and PLAN. The latest design may have been assigned with a code name ‘Gaoxin 8’.
The Y-8 “Category-III Platform” was based on the Y-8F-600 (later renamed Y-9) turboprop transport aircraft, which traces its origin to the Russian Antonov An-12 ‘Cub’. The Y-9 features a fully-pressurised cabin, modernised avionics, a two-man flight crew, a glass cockpit with ‘off-the-shelf’ commercial airliner instruments, and the improved WJ-6C turboprop engines with six-bladed propellers. The aircraft has a maximum take-off weight of 65 tonnes and a load capacity of 20 tonnes.
Over the past decade the PLA has been investing heavily to develop its air-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, with a variety of aircraft introduced. In recent year, PLA intelligence aircraft have been frequently spotted flying near Japanese waters and the disputed Diaoyu/Semkaku Islands.