China is testing an Air China 747-8 plane and reconfiguring it for President Xi Jinping’s future official overseas trips, according to media reports.
Until today China does not have its own official Air Force One for its top leader to get instant briefings and call the shots in a flying war room anytime, anywhere.
It’s said that in the past, a passenger plane from the nation’s flag carrier, Air China, would be deployed as an ad hoc state craft after retrofitting to carry Xi or his predecessors for any outbound trips.
The plane would then return to the fleet to operate commercial flights after each state visit.
For long, China’s top leaders dreamed of having a state-of-the-art airliner to travel in style and comfort. In 2001, China ordered a twin-engine wide body 767-300ER from Boeing for US$120 million when then President Jiang Zemin wanted to fly a presidential jet of his own before retirement.
Chinese agents found multiple bugs throughout the cabin, including inside the private lounge and bathroom for Jiang’s own use, after the plane’s US$10 million reconfiguration in Texas.
That saga erupted into a diplomatic row with Washington, although some observers reckoned then that it might have been an “inside job” by feuding factions within the party. The 767-300 was never used by any top leader after delivery. It operated commercial flights and was sold to a Kazakhstan airline in 2014.
In recent years, Xi and Premier Li Keqiang have normally flown a 747-400, built in April 2000 bearing the registration No. B-2472, for long-haul trips. The plane is said to have been renovated by Chinese domestic contractors.
In 2013, state broadcaster CCTV released footage of Xi dining with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev on board the plane, giving the public a glimpse of its interior.
But the 17-year-old plane is said to be becoming more prone to mechanical glitches and more importantly, when his US or Russian counterparts can still take the wheels of their nation while in the air, like deploying troops or even launching a nuclear strike, Xi is literally deaf and blind when travelling on this aging, bulbous jet.
Security and confidentiality are among other concerns. Communications from the plane can be easily tapped due to inadequate encryption, and, unlike the US presidential jet, the plane does not have military-grade radar to monitor airspace in close vicinity, nor aerial refueling capability, electronic countermeasures to jam enemy radar or flares and chaff to avoid missiles.
Now, the first ever Chinese version Air Force One is said to be a brand-new US$380 million 747-8 intercontinental airliner, with registration No. B-2479, which first took flight from Boeing’s Everett plant in November 2014.
It underwent thorough cabin modifications in Hamburg, Germany from May 2015 and flew back home for further testing in October 2016. It is scheduled to be commissioned this year.
Its latest known flight was in April, when it flew from Beijing to Chengdu in southwestern China and returned without touching down, covering 3,400 kilometers in almost six hours. The plane can fly up to 14,000 km without refueling.
Besides a luxurious master suite cum executive office for the top leader and the first lady, a cavernous main lounge for ministers and top aides, a medical center, a secret service command room, etc, it’s believed that the new jet, already called the “flying Zhongnanhai”, will have all the security and communication features to ensure real-time command and conferencing and defense against threats from air or the ground.
Some media reports say that the Chinese Air Force One has already been in service and flew Xi to Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 7 for a state visit, but other sources claim Xi still traveled on the old plane but the new jet also flew there as a part of a trial.
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