Since their entry into service in 2012 onboard China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, the J-15 Flying Shark twin engine air superiority fighter has been frequently criticized for its highly limited capabilities. The fighter’s heavy weight combined with the lack of either steam or electromagnetic catapult systems (EMALS) onboard the Liaoning meant that the J-15 was seriously restricted in its fuel carriage and weapons payload — resulting in a missile arsenal a fraction the size of those deployed by U.S. Navy’s jets and a negligible combat radius around the carrier. The aircraft’s lack of advanced radar evading capabilities, at a time when the U.S. and British navies were preparing to induct their first carrier based stealth fighters — the F-35B and C variants — gave further grounds to criticize the J-15’s potential. Perhaps most significantly, however, the three accidents involving J-15 fighters in their first half decade of service were cited by many analysts as proof that China was far from capable of becoming a major carrier power for the foreseeable future — at least not until the Flying Shark could be replaced by a lighter and more reliable fighter.
Despite the considerable criticism the Flying Shark has weathered and the underwhelming capabilities of the jets currently in service onboard the Liaoning, a deeper analysis of the airframe’s full potential — particularly when deployed from more modern carriers currently under construction — indicates that the Chinese jet could well emerge as one of the world’s foremost carrier-based fighters in the near future.
The J-15 was developed as a carrier-based variant of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-11B air superiority fighter, and its airframe and role are almost identical to those of the Russian Su-33 carrier-based jets, which entered service in the 1990s — themselves developed as carrier variants of the Su-27. Indeed, access to a prototype Su-33 acquired from Ukraine was critical to allowing the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation to develop the J-15 from the land-based airframe. The Su-33, much like the J-15, is poorly suited to operations from carriers of the Kuznetsov class, which lack catapult launch systems – that class includes both the Liaoning and Russia’s own sole carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. The Russian naval fighter thus faces many of the same payload and fuel restrictions, and largely as a result of this was operated from longer airstrips on land for over 90 percent of its sorties during recent combat operations in Syria. The Su-33, however, was never initially conceptualized to be operated from such carriers, and was intended to primarily operate from the decks of the Soviet Ulyanovsk class supercarriers — gargantuan warships comparable to the U.S. Nimitz class, which would have been equipped with steam catapults. When operating from such vessels, the Su-33 would have provided the Soviet (and later Russian) Navy with an analogue to the U.S. F-14 Tomcat — a lethal twin engine heavy fighter capable of dominating the skies and contesting air superiority at sea.
The J-15’s airframe, like that of the Su-33, has extremely high potential when operating from a more suitable carrier. It is important to take into account the Liaoning’s nature primarily as a training carrier, and as a result the role of J-15 fighters currently in service is to provide the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with its first experience operating carrier-based combat jets. Future warships such as the Type 003 however, currently under construction, will have far larger decks capable of launching multiple aircraft simultaneously and, most critically, will field electromagnetic catapult systems allowing the J-15 to launch will a full fuel tank and missile payload. Flying Sharks have been observed by satellite for a number of years already testing land-based runways simulating carrier conditions with EMALS, a force multiplier for the fighter’s capabilities. This could very likely make the J-15 the most heavily armed and longest ranged carrier-based fighter in the world — with an operational altitude approximately 4 kilometers higher than the U.S. Navy’s far lighter F-18E and F-35 carrier-based jets and a significantly higher speed and longer range.
While the J-15 has been criticized as being too heavy to operate from carrier decks, on larger carriers equipped with EMALS systems this will not be an issue. Indeed, the F-14 Tomcat operated by the U.S. Navy was considerably heavier despite relying on a less powerful steam catapult system — and was still considered one of the most successful carrier-based fighters ever developed. Furthermore, with the Tomcat retired in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse (largely due to its massive operational costs and maintenance requirements), the U.S. Navy lacks an air superiority fighter of its own — seriously undermining the service’s ability to engage a near peer carrier strike group at sea with their own air superiority jets. As Bob Kress and Rear Admiral Paul Gillcrist, USN (Ret.) noted in 2002 regarding the Tomcat’s retirement and the less impressive performance of its lighter replacement, the F-18E:
Though it’s a whizzy little airshow performer with a nice, modern cockpit, it has only 36 percent of the F-14’s payload/range capability. The F-18E Super Hornet has been improved but still has, at best, 50 percent of the F-14’s capability to deliver a fixed number of bombs (in pounds) on target. This naturally means that the carrier radius of influence drops to 50 percent of what it would have been with the same number of F-14s. As a result, the area of influence (not radius) drops to 23 percent!
The tremendous advantage of operating a heavier and higher end fighter, which the military no longer perceived a need for with an apparent end to great power competition, could well soon be a factor in China’s favor once the J-15 is deployed from the decks of upcoming EMALS equipped carriers.
Regarding claims that the J-15 is unreliable due to the number of accidents it has suffered, it is important to recognize both that China has no experience whatsoever operating carrier-based fighters — making some accidents inevitable — and that carrier-based fighters fielded by other states have had accidents as frequently if not more so in their first years in service. One key example is the F-14, which saw a phenomenal number of losses to crashes, approaching 40 jets in its first half decade of service alone. Of the 712 carrier-based Tomcats produced, over 160 were lost to accidents, and 28 percent of all accidents were attributed to issues with the engine. Judged by the standards of China’s J-15, the F-14 would be considered a failure many times over, but it went on to become one of the most successful jets of the Cold War and a key component in ensuring undisputed American blue water primacy until the Soviet Union’s collapse. The J-15’s potential thus cannot be dismissed as a result of its safety record, which all things considered is rather low.
What about the J-15’s ability to contend with rival fighters at sea and its apparent lack of sophistication relative to the latest combat jets fielded by the U.S. Navy? Considering the significant enhancements that have been made to the design of its land-based counterpart the J-11B since 2012 to develop the J-16 and J-11D “fourth generation-plus” fighters, it is very likely that future J-15 variants will be equipped with similar enhancements to their airframes. Some of these upgrades may well be based on the technologies of the Russian Su-35, an advanced derivative of the Su-27 recently acquired by the PLAAF, including three dimensional thrust vectoring capabilities and a radar cross section reducing airframe. Further upgrades currently planned for the J-11D, include radar absorbent coatings, an AESA radar, and the ability to deploy PL-15 ramjet powered air-to-air missiles, which retain a considerable advantage in range over their U.S. analogue, the AIM-120C. These technologies have all been integrated on the lighter J-10 fighter airframe, leading to the elite J-10C’s entry into service in April 2018. A J-15 airframe fielding these same capabilities is likely to be complete by the time more capable carriers are fully assembled in the early 2020s.
A specialized electronic warfare variant of the J-15 is also confirmed to be under development to complement the capabilities of conventional variants. With these enhancements applied to the already formidable air superiority airframe, and with the fighter able to take off with a full payload using an electromagnetic launch system, the J-15 could well emerge as a world leading carrier-based fighter — one which will give more urgency to calls for the U.S. Navy to quickly acquire a new carrier-based air superiority fighter of its own.
Abraham Ait is a military analyst and expert on Asia-Pacific security. He is the founder of Military Watch Magazine.