Lyle J. Goldstein
China’s latest large aircraft AG600 might be an ugly duckling, but the amphibious plane could turn out to be a shrewd investment.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) recently announced that the various naval flying and engineering schools in Yantai (Shandong) have been consolidated and elevated to the status of the “China PLA Navy Aviation University” [中国人民解放军海军航空大学]. For a rising power with grand naval ambitions that just launched its second aircraft carrier, the move to consolidate and upgrade its institutions for training naval pilots is not at all surprising. Even putting carrier aviation aside, Chinese aircraft development (both manned and unmanned) has been a veritable beehive of activity in the last decade, producing numerous sleek fighters and attack aircraft, transports, trainers, electronic warfare and early warning aircraft, not to mention a slew of UAVs and helicopters too. Moreover, rumors regarding a long-range bomber, as well as vertical takeoff and perhaps tilt-rotor aviation need to be taken seriously. In combination with China’s bristling conventional missile strike forces, these new air capabilities are slowly but surely altering the military balance in the Asia-Pacific region.
Against that somewhat perturbing background, Beijing’s new large amphibious aircraft AG-600, which was first revealed at the Zhuhai airshow back in 2016, forms rather an anomaly since it is neither sleek, nor stealthy, nor bristling with weapons and sensors. Chinese sources readily admit (as discussed below) that the AG-600 falls short of the world’s leading designs for such aircraft. Deepening the mystery, moreover, is the fact that the U.S. Navy has not operated seaplanes of any type for decades, implying they are not cost-effective and have numerous operational limitations in modern naval warfare. So what exactly are Beijing’s planners thinking? Is this China’s “Spruce Goose”—the product of aircraft engineers run amok without strategic sense or fiscal constraints?