Following is a guest entry from Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, co-founders of China Sign Post.
Gen. Chen Bingde, Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has reportedly said that, for the first time, a Chinese ‘aircraft carrier is under construction.’ China is also already preparing the refitted ski-jump carrier Varyag, purchased from Ukraine in 1998, to go to sea.
Given these developments, it seems a good time to look at the first carrier-based aircraft that China will employ: the new J-15 ‘Flying Shark’ carrier-based heavy fighter-bomber.
As currently configured, the J-15 is no ‘great leap forward,’ but is nevertheless triggering concern in the region because it indicates rapid improvement in Chinese naval aviation, and suggests Chinese determination to extend its regional blue water presence. The J-15’s initial role will be linked to, and limited by, its first operational platform: a ‘starter carrier’ to project a bit of power, confer prestige on a rising great power, and master basic procedures.
What’s Happening Now?
On April 24, 2011, Chinese Internet sources posted new photos of a J-15 sitting outside a hangar at the No. 112 Factory of Shenyang Aircraft Corporation airfield.
The J-15, which has an airframe closely resembling that of the Russian Su-33, boasts more advanced, indigenously made avionics, including a shortened tailcone, an arresting hook, and strengthened landing gear.
The lack of a second seat in the J-15 suggests that the PLA believes its electronics suite is sufficiently integrated and automated to require only one person to operate it, which is normal practice for carrier aircraft.
Given China’s low baseline in naval aviation, any progress could make a big difference. The J-15’s potential for long-range missions and heavy payloads, however, is negated by Varyag’s ski-jump deck and China’s lack of refuelling capabilities. For now, it would seem to be dependent on land-based tankers, at least until China develops or acquires catapults.
As for potential mission applications, the J-15 is a large aircraft and likely has a normal take-off weight similar to that of the United States’ now-retired F-14 Tomcat. If the J-15’s avionics suite can support a ground attack mission, it will have two primary uses in a future Chinese carrier group, with a third role of providing air cover as necessary during future operations to protect and/or evacuate Chinese citizens threatened by violence overseas.
If properly equipped, supported, and employed—and these are significant ‘ifs’—the J-15 could affect the regional military balance substantially. If China is able to eventually employ an effective indigenous active electronically scanned array radar in the J-15, this would offer it stealth and high jamming-resistance, and the potential ability to track and engage cruise missiles. While too many variables remain at this time to determine precisely how the J-15 will contribute to China’s military capabilities, its very existence suggests for the first time the possibility of China developing serious maritime aviation capabilities—a prospect that would have regional implications. In fact, there’s already a substantial likelihood that the J-15’s existence will prompt China’s maritime neighbours, in particular Japan, to purchase additional late-generation fighter aircraft.
Possible J-15 missions
While the Flying Shark’s capabilities remain uncertain, its potential is significant. If deployed effectively, it could offer China new options for combat air patrol (CAP) and maritime strike.
The basic design features high internal fuel capacity and allows for a substantial operational radius. Even with the reduction in fuel and weapons loadout imposed by a ski-jump launch, it’s probable that a J-15’s combat radius could extend as far as 700 kilometres from the carrier, particularly if the buddy tanking capability is included. The J-15 will likely be able to carry China’s PL-12 air-to-air missile, adding an additional 100 kilometres to its reach out range.
When the J-15 is deployed, it could help push potential foes much further away from a Chinese carrier. Organic fighter cover would be vital for maritime security missions located far enough from land to preclude land-based air support. In a close-in fight, the J-15, given its favourable thrust-to-weight ratio and low wing loading, could be a dangerous foe.
Maritime Strike/Anti-Ship Missions
If armed and able to launch successfully with advanced missiles, carrier-based J-15s could credibly hold surface platforms within 500 kilometres of the Chinese carrier group at risk. Existing Chinese surface combatants and submarines pose a very serious threat to surface vessels, but they take much longer to move into firing positions and thus can be more easily accounted for by planners and air defence personnel.
The time taken for a J-15 strike package to cover several hundred kilometres – only a few minutes – would also give Chinese commanders much greater tactical flexibility.
One creative way in which the PLA might attempt to the impact of deck aviation in a regional conflict would be to ‘lily pad’ by launching a number of fully loaded J-15s from coastal airbases, aerially refuel them in protected airspace, and subsequently use the carrier for aeroplane recovery after the first-strike mission.
Regardless of the J-15’s specific capabilities, however, it’s likely to be limited severely by the deck aviation platform from which it operates – the ski-jump. A ski-jump design imposes significant restrictions in terms of allowing an aircraft to approach maximum take-off weight. It also requires the carrier to depend on helicopters to provide airborne early warning (AEW) – a major problem given that helicopters are one of the PLAN’s greatest areas of weakness. As long as the PLAN operates ski-jump carriers, therefore, it’s unclear how much the air group on the carrier will contribute to the overall ISR picture.
Another key limitation is that ski-jump carriers can’t operate tankers, whose aerial refuelling is essential for extending naval aircraft range. Thus, even if China had three carriers in the fleet, up from zero today, PLAN Aviation would still be a primarily land-based air force.
For these reasons, Chinese ski-jump carriers simply can’t be used in any of the combat roles that US Navy carriers have performed.
Issues and Challenges
- Development or acquisition of catapult launches. Ski-jump launches are highly restrictive, and effectively limit China to operations inside the range of its handful of land-based large tanker aircraft, thus excluding the entire strategic zone between the straits of Hormuz and Malacca.
- Landing gear. A related question concerns the plane’s ability to absorb the impact of landing. Mistakes or faulty equipment can cause major damage to the aircraft and kill or injure those on deck.
- AEW and tanker support is needed to function at maximum combat effectiveness. China would need to negotiate access agreements of some type to deploy tankers to support any possible future operations outside the region.
- China needs to build advanced air-launched Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles to compensate for range restrictions induced by lower fuel payloads during ski-jump operations.
- China still faces huge challenges improving reliability and safety standards, and has yet to demonstrate top-tier indigenous production capabilities in aero engine development.
- How many J-15s will PLAN Aviation acquire? Deploying a carrier with a full component of highly capable fighters sends a very different strategic message than deploying one outfitted primarily with helicopters.
- Assuming that the J-10 can be turned into a successful carrier fighter, will China promote a follow-on version of the slightly-navalised variant of its already developed J-10 fighter? There’s little evidence of this as yet.
So what does all this ultimately mean? While a new step for China and an important indicator, the J-15 is limited in capability; its launch platform even more so. The key issues here are the range and payload, which are both constrained significantly by a ski-jump.
To obtain significantly extended range it’s necessary to use large tankers, which the US Air Force employs extensively, but China lacks. The limitations on number of aircraft carried and the take-off weight limits of ski-jump launched aircraft mean that Chinese planners would be faced with a very difficult choice – attack at longer ranges with a greatly reduced strike package, or bring the carrier in close to get more aircraft on target and expose the entire carrier group to greater risk.
While a first-generation Chinese carrier would not represent a threat to US ships and facilities in the way that the United States uses carriers, it could nevertheless be employed to provide significantly increased air defence to a group of surface ships in order to get them within firing range of a US carrier group or a key US base.
In addition, while a Chinese carrier group would be no match in a head-to-head confrontation with the US Navy, the very existence of a Chinese carrier capability would potentially exert significant pressure on China’s neighbours to settle maritime disputes in ways favourable to China.
One should therefore not necessarily interpret this development as aimed at a specific goal, but rather view J-15’s development as part of a long-term PLAN Aviation effort to ‘dip its toe’ in the water in order to build more robust capabilities in the long run.
Andrew Erickson is an associate professor at the US Naval War College and fellow in the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Programme. Gabe Collins is a commodity and security specialist focused on China and Russia. This is an edited and abridged version of a longer analysis. The full version can be read here.