China’s Carrier-Based J-15 Likely Enters Mass Production

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China’s Carrier-Based J-15 Likely Enters Mass Production

China’s state media reports suggest the J-15 has entered mass production but can’t take off with bombs.

A number of recent reports in Chinese state-run media indicate that the country’s carrier-based J-15 multirole fighter jets have entered mass production.

The Shenyang J-15 (also called Flying Shark) is China’s carrier-based fighter aircraft. It was reversed engineered from a Russian Sukhoi Su-33 that China acquired from Ukraine, although it reportedly is equipped with some indigenous weapons, avionics and other features that Beijing claims greatly enhances its capabilities. The J-15 is also powered by the Chinese-built Taihang (WS-10) turbofan engine.

A J-15 prototype conducted its first flight test in August 2009. In November last year it was announced that a PLA Air Force (PLAAF) pilot conducted the first take-off and landing from China’s aircraft carrier, Liaoning, using one of the J-15 tester jets. Throughout 2013 the PLAAF has continued holding take-off and landing exercises using the J-15 aircraft.

The People’s Daily Online carried a couple of reports this week on the J-15. Most of them begin by noting that “many keen military observers” have noted that the J-15s that have appeared on CCTV as of late have been painted gray with a People’s Republic of China flag on them, in contrast to the initial five J-15s that were painted yellow and were therefore marked as being intended solely for testing and development. The reports then note that the new paint job has led these “keen military observers” to speculate that the J-15 fighters have entered mass production.

One of the reports then asks Yin Zhuo, which it identifies only as a military analyst but who is also a former Rear Admiral in the PLA Navy (PLAN), to comment on this speculation. Admiral Yin begins by affirming that there has not been an official announcement yet on whether the J-15s have entered mass production, but nonetheless judges that the “navy paint finish on the J-15 indicates that it is now in formal service.”

He is then quoted as that online speculation about whether the aircraft has entered into mass production is “logical based on the facts that J-15 is already in service, and its technology is mature enough for mass production.” The rest of the article is devoted to Admiral Yin discussing what the implications will be if the J-15s have entered mass production, including the aircraft’s service life, which he estimates at 25-30 years.

“Once mass production is under way,” the People’s Daily paraphrases Admiral Yin as saying, “the aircraft design will be fixed other than in terms of possible changes to radar and electronic communication systems, or modernization of the engine after 10 to 15 years of service. However, the profile, basic finish, and performance standards of the aircraft have been established.”

Although hardly conclusive, the reports strongly suggest that mass production of the J-15 has begun, or at least that the Communist Party wants to create that impression.

Notably, the reports coincide with the Commander of PLAN, Admiral Wu Shengli, visiting the United States. The commander of the Liaoning carrier and the pilot who first landed on the carrier last November are accompanying Admiral Wu on the trip, according to Reuters.

“We have around 36 airplanes operating on board our ship,” Captain Zhang Zheng, the Liaoning commander told reporters in Washington this week, referring to aircraft carrier. “And we are still practicing and doing tests and experiments for the equipment and systems.”

Admiral Wu, on the other hand, told reporters that the Liaoning is just for training and experimentation and after a “final evaluation” the PLAN will decide on the development of a new aircraft carrier for the service.

Meanwhile, one of the other J-15 articles that appeared on the People’s Daily website compared it favorably relative to other countries’ carrier-based aircraft. Indeed, Admiral Yin, who was also quoted in that article, is paraphrased as saying that the J-15 “reaches a similar level to the U.S. F/A-18C/D Super Hornet” and is superior in terms of its air combat capability.

However, Want China Times flags a Xinhua report that quotes Sun Cong, the J-15s designer, noting that currently the aircraft cannot launch attacks against ships and ground targets when taking off from the Liaoning. That is because the aircraft carrier utilizes a ski-jump ramp and the J-15 would be too heavy to take off if it was carrying air-to-surface missiles and bombs. Thus, until the Navy acquires a Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested-Recovery (CATOBAR) carrier, the J-15, which is a multirole fighter, will be limited primarily to air superiority operations (and ship defense).

Notably, one of the People’s Daily reports observed that the J-15’s “front wheel is suitable for catapult launch similar to the carrier-based fighter of the U.S. Navy. The catapult launch was taken into consideration at the beginning of its design.”

In that context, Admiral Wu’s comments seem very interesting indeed.