China's Jump Jet Mystery
Image Credit: US Navy

China's Jump Jet Mystery

 
 

The Chinese aviation industry has begun testing a short-takeoff, vertical-landing naval fighter optimized for small aircraft carriers, according to English-language military trade publications. The reports last week cited rumours circulated by Chinese aviation blogs. ‘It is difficult to substantiate Internet chatter,’ US-based Defense News cautioned.

But ‘given the PLA's naval power projection ambitions, it is probable there is (a) VSTOL or STOVL (short-takeoff and vertical-landing) fighter programme,’ Richard Fisher, from the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, D.C., told the publication.

The reports raise as many questions as they answer. If they're true, it's unclear why the Chinese navy would even want a vertical-landing fighter, considering the limitations associated with such designs—and also considering China's many alternatives to a so-called ‘jump jet.’

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Again if true, it's possible that Beijing is developing a jump jet in response to Taiwanese interest in an American vertical-landing fighter currently in testing. It's also possible, but not likely, that a Chinese jump jet hints at as-yet-undisclosed naval shipbuilding plans. 

Defense Newsechoed Chinese blog comments that the new fighter, apparently designated ‘J-18,’ is ‘similar to the Russian Su-33 carrier-based fighter.’ That seems unlikely, as the Su-33 weighs 66,000 pounds fully loaded, three times as much as the world's only successful jump jet, the Anglo-American AV-8 Harrier.

The Americans are also working on the F-35B, a 50,000-pound stealthy jump jet that could enter service as early as 2016, but which has encountered serious problems with weight, engine heat, parts failures and software readiness.   

The US Marine Corps is planning on buying hundreds of F-35Bs to fly from the Navy's 11 800-foot-long assault ships. In addition to performing an amphibious assault role, these vessels serve as smaller back-ups to the Navy's 11 larger super-carriers that operate conventionally-launching and -landing planes. Italy, Spain and several other navies with small carriers are also likely F-35B customers. 

Historically, jump jets such as the Harrier have been a necessary evil, justified only by the small size of assault ships and light carriers and the prohibitive costs of large fleets of full-size carriers. For its first 40 years of service starting in the 1960s, the Harrier was accident-prone and outclassed in most scenarios by conventional aircraft. Only recently have improved maintenance and training plus lightweight ‘smart’ weapons somewhat levelled the playing field.

All the same, the only other once-operational jump jet—the long-defunct Yak-38 flown by the Soviet navy in the 1970s and ’80s—was nearly useless, owing to range and payload limitations. It’s unclear that the Chinese could do better with their own design, particularly if the 30-tonne Su-33 is the starting point.

It seems plausible that Chinese bloggers have mistaken a short-takeoff fighter for a true jump jet. Fitted with vectored-thrust engines that are now common on many planes, the 1980s-vintage Su-33 might be able to operate from smaller carriers. The J-18 could, in reality, be a misnomer for the J-15, a recent Chinese copy of the Su-33 that appeared in a naval paintjob around the same time the J-18 rumours surfaced.

The J-18 could also be the product of a propaganda campaign launched in response to Taiwanese interest in the F-35B, which spiked last spring when Air Force Gen. Ger Hsi-hsiung told parliament that only a jump jet flying from camouflaged highway bases would be protected against Chinese missile attacks.

That said, Chinese bloggers accurately predicted the first flight of the new J-20 stealth fighter-bomber in December. If they're right again and the J-18 actually exists, it could represent a new niche capability for the PLAN—but one that isn’t, as yet, justified by the Chinese naval order of battle. China has nearly finished work on a refurbished Russian light carrier, renamed Shi Lang. The vessel could enter service this year or next in a limited training role, most likely operating J-15s or a modified version of the air force's J-10 fighter. Shi Lang is big enough for traditional planes and doesn’t actually require a jump jet.

Indeed, China neither possesses—nor has publically-acknowledged plans for—an assault ship that would benefit from an operational jump jet. If the PLAN is developing both a small carrier design plus a vertical-landing jet to fly from it, the jet would seem to be far ahead of the vessel—although the vessel is likely an easier thing to build.

Whatever the case, the J-18 rumours are at least evidence of a vigorous military aerospace industry—one that at least renders talk of a new fighter plausible, if not always true.

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