The Limits of China’s Fighter

China has announced that the new J-15 fighter will be carried aboard it first aircraft carrier, the Shi Lang.

The People's Liberation Army Navy has finally broken the silence about its new carrier-based jet fighter, the J-15. While outside observers have strongly suspected for several years that China intended to deploy the J-15 – an adaptation of the Russian Su-33 – aboard the PLAN's first aircraft carrier Shi Lang, Chinese officials didn’t confirm it until last week.

Confirmation of the J-15 came with some revealing details about the plane's missions and limitations. It’s clearer than ever that the J-15 will inherit most of the Su-33’s limitations, particularly with regard to payload and range. As a result, Shi Lang could be highly vulnerable to foreign naval forces in combat.

Unnamed ‘Chinese aviation officials’ said that three J-15 prototypes would begin testing this year, and that the last of them would have all the features of the planned operational version, including folding wings to allow more compact storage aboard Shi Lang, a refurbished Soviet vessel that displaces just two-thirds as much as a US flattop. 

Shi Langdoesn’t have the steam catapults that US and French carriers use to launch aircraft. Instead, the Chinese ship, like its Russian sister ship Kuznetsov, uses an elevated ramp to help boost planes into the air. Ramp-launch, while less complex than a catapult, doesn’t impart the same amount of energy. That means ramp-launched fighters must be relatively light. The British Harrier, which used a ramp, weighed just 7 tonnes empty. The Su-33 weighs 20 tons empty.

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In Russian service, the Su-33 has been restricted to short-range patrols carrying just a few air-to-air missiles. That's the big reason why the Kuznetsov has never had a major impact on the European naval balance.

Shi Langwill be similarly handicapped, more so because the Chinese intend the J-15 to carry the C-602 anti-ship cruise missile. Carrying a single one-tonne C-602, the J-15 will have an operational range of just 250 miles, according to the anonymous industry officials. It’s not clear if the J-15 will be able to carry air-to-air missiles for self-protection, in addition to the C-602. 

If the Chinese military operated a large number of effective aerial tankers, the J-15's payload limitation would be more manageable. Even catapult-launched fighters, such as the US F/A-18E/F, can range just 400 miles from their carrier with useful combat load. But aerial refueling can extend that range to more than 1,000 miles. F/A-18s routinely fly missions over Afghanistan from carriers operating in the Indian Ocean.

If Shi Lang is meant to operate in a sea control role, clearing the ocean of enemy vessels, then it could find itself at a disadvantage compared to rival naval forces. The C-602 has a range of around 250 miles. So a Chinese carrier battle group could strike surface targets at a distance of 500 miles.

A US carrier group launching F-18s armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles could strike from a distance of at least 600 miles. Factor in aerial refueling – and the fact that the Harpoon is light enough for a single F-18 to carry two – and the US advantage increases dramatically. The Su-33 is simply not an ideal fighter for ramp-equipped carriers.

It’s telling that within a few years, the Chinese will be the only country operating Su-33s or its derivatives from carriers. The Russians decided to replace the Su-33 with a version of the much smaller MiG-29 after realizing that the MiG had similar performance, but Kuznetsov could carry many more of them. The Indians, too, are buying a MiG-29 variant to replace their Harriers. 

Future Chinese carriers could include a catapult. Indeed, the likelihood that carriers after Shi Lang will be catapult-equipped is sure to increase, once the PLAN sees firsthand how limited its J-15s really are.