China’s J-15 Carrierborne Fighter: Sizing up the Competition

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China’s J-15 Carrierborne Fighter: Sizing up the Competition

Just how capable is the J-15, and where does its future lie?

China’s J-15 Carrierborne Fighter: Sizing up the Competition

A J-15 fighter jet flies above the capital city in Beijing, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Having reviewed the J-15’s payload and reliability in context in Part 1 last month, it is finally possible to consider the J-15 on basis of its own merits and flaws.

The physical dimensions and characteristics of the J-15 are virtually identical to that of the Su-33 with the same addition of canards, shortened tailsting, folding wing and tail modifications, tailhook and undercarriage strengthening, and corrosion alterations to facilitate carrier operations. The J-15 retains the same Flanker pedigree in kinematic performance, an astonishingly large radome, as well as a large internal fuel capacity. As an aircraft designed and built in the late 2000s, the J-15 likely utilizes more advanced construction materials and methods compared to the original Su-33, enabling some weight savings not dissimilar to those between the J-11B and Su-27SK.

The most substantial differences in capability between the J-15 and un-upgraded Su-33s are found in the avionics and weapons suite.

The J-15 adopts the J-11B avionics suite modified with multirole capability, including the same cockpit, and likely similar datalinks and mission computers as well. The J-15 uses the same radar as the J-11B (possibly dubbed Type 1493), but adds multirole air-to-surface modes. The J-11B radar is a mechanically scanned array that entered service in 2007, and sits in the same technological generation as the sensor suites of the J-10A and JF-17A. It is thus less advanced than the active phased array (AESA) systems equipped on the J-10C, J-16, J-20, or upgraded J-11BGs. However, the sheer size of the J-11B’s radome and its corresponding array size suggest a great likelihood that the radar of the J-11B – and by extension the J-15 – is the most capable non-phased array on any PLA fighter.

The J-15’s primary air-to-air weapons suite adopts the same mature PL-12 BVRAAM and PL-8 SRAAM that makes up the mainstay armament of other PLA fourth generation fighters such as the J-11B, J-10A, and upgraded third generation J-8F/DF. The PL-12 and PL-8 have since been superseded in leading edge capability by the PL-15 and PL-10 on more capable fighters such as the J-10C, J-16 and J-20; however, they remain relevant in contemporary air-to-air combat.

The anti-surface weapons suite of the J-15 consists of three primary weapons types. The YJ-91 anti-radiation missile is a supersonic weapon derived from the Russian Kh-31, used to engage radars as part of suppression/destruction of enemy air defense missions. The YJ-83K family of anti-ship missiles provides a subsonic standoff anti-ship capability. The KD-88 family standoff weapon provides a subsonic standoff land attack weapon. Both the YJ-83K and KD-88 are equipped with a range in excess of 200 kilometers, and by weight category, generation, and guidance can be viewed as approximates of weapons such as the modern Harpoon and SLAM variants, respectively. The J-15 has yet to be seen carrying any direct attack munitions; however, given the overall lack of PLA priority in procuring widespread direct attack capabilities this should not be that surprising.

Taking this together, the J-15 is a credible multirole fighter, with mature fourth generation air-to-air capability primarily enabled by its active radar homing BVRAAMs, and a credible standoff strike and anti-ship capability. The addition of these weapons, integrated with contemporary Chinese avionics, arguably provides the greatest differentiators of capability from the vintage un-upgraded Su-33s operated by the Russian Navy. If adequate funding were available, such capabilities would likely have been integrated upon Russian Su-33s as well.

However, the J-15 as it stands naturally remains less capable than contemporary 4.5 generation aircraft, most prominently in its lack of an AESA radar. A mature AESA solution was likely unavailable at the time of the J-15’s development; the aircraft therefore proceeded with the proven avionics suite derived from the J-11B in order to mitigate risk, while still enabling a relevant air superiority and strike capability. Nevertheless, when the J-15 first entered service in 2014, it could be reasonably claimed that for a brief period of about a year (prior to the J-16 first entering PLA use in 2015), the J-15 was the PLA’s most capable multirole fighter aircraft by virtue of its overall kinematic performance, payload capacity, and weapons and avionics suite.

For the purposes of shorthand comparison with international peers, by size, weight, and weapons and avionics suite, the closest international approximation to the J-15 would be the F/A-18E Super Hornet Block I – recalling the distinction that it was Block II which received AESAs in the form of AN/APG-79 – but with more constraints on launch conditions when taking off at heavier loads, given its STOBAR mechanism compared to CATOBAR.

Future Prospects

As of May 2021, the J-15 program appears to exhibit substantial signs of life, with vibrant future prospects.

At present, the production of J-15s that restarted in 2019 appears to be continuing at Shenyang. These aircraft seem to be configured in the same manner as the original J-15s produced from 2013 to 2018; however, it is possible that advancements in materials have benefited their construction: notably, they are produced with a new factory primer. It is not known how many of these J-15s will be built. Perhaps there will be another 24 J-15s for the aircraft carrier Shandong, to complement the initial 24 built for the Liaoning.

A number of J-15 demonstrator variants have been developed and test flown in the 2010s.

To separate the current in-production J-15 STOBAR variant from subsequent variants, the current aircraft has sometimes been dubbed he J-15A as an unofficial designation. For the purposes of clarity, it will be referred to as the J-15A in the following section.

The various confirmed J-15 variants following the standard J-15A single seat fighter, in chronological order below based on maiden flight, are as follows.

First is the J-15S, first flown in November 2012. This is a twin-seat combat capable trainer of the J-15A that retains the same STOBAR launch mechanism. Only one single J-15S is confirmed to have flown and is not in production. Interestingly, the J-15S prototype was powered by WS-10 engines rather than Al-31s.

Next is the J-15T, first flown in July 2016. This is a variant of the J-15A with modifications to enable CATOBAR launch, with the most visible modifications including a strengthened nose landing gear and an accompanying catapult launch bar. Potentially two J-15T airframes exist, at least one confirmed to be powered by WS-10s. The J-15T appears to be primarily a structural testbed and is not a missionized airframe. However, it could form the basis of a true missionized and production ready variant that has been rumored with the name J-15B.

Finally, the J-15D was first flown in October 2016. This is an electronic warfare (EW) variant derived from the twin-seat J-15S, also retaining the same STOBAR launch mechanism. Visible modifications from the standard J-15A/S are consistent with the J-16D land-based electronic variant (derived from the J-16). These modifications include a revised radome; removal of its internal gun; and the addition of wingtip pods, likely for electronic intelligence purposes. This aircraft is powered by Al-31s. Only one J-15D has been confirmed to exist, and it is not in production.

Recent rumors over the last year have suggested that a production-ready CATOBAR variant of the J-15 derived from the J-15T, with a modern avionics and weapons suite, would be produced as part of the airwing of the 003 CATOBAR carrier under construction. This variant has tentatively been dubbed the J-15B. A recent picture released in February 2021 depicting the cockpit and canopy of a Flanker airframe under construction, tantalizingly depicts canopy handholds – a feature on CATOBAR compatible fighters to allow pilots to stabilize themselves during catapult launch – as well as a new low-profile heads-up display not associated with past domestic Flanker variants. This aircraft is thought to likely represent the J-15B.

Production and procurement of a CATOBAR variant J-15 is rational, as it would unlock the flexibility of the aircraft to launch at maximum takeoff weight and payload under a much greater variety of launch conditions, and would correspond with the Chinese navy’s future carrier fleet being CATOBAR in configuration. In other words, any STOBAR aircraft built would only be capable of operating from the Liaoning and Shandong, and unable to crossdeck with future CATOBAR carriers (however many that may end up being). On the other hand, a CATOBAR compatible J-15B could theoretically operate from both CATOBAR and STOBAR carriers.

The timing of an expected J-15B CATOBAR variant would allow it to reap the fruits of the newest generation of domestic avionics and weapons, likely enjoying the same capability that equips 4.5 generation aircraft like the J-16 and J-10C. A reasonable avionics upgrade package could constitute an AESA radar, new datalinks, new passive sensors, and an EW suite that would feature weapons including but not limited to current leading-edge air-to-air missiles like the PL-15 and PL-10, as well as being compatible with future upcoming weapons for air superiority and strike missions.

Such a J-15B could see a long shelf life of relevancy, complementing the future fifth generation carrierborne J-XY, not dissimilar to the U.S. Navy’s pairing of the Super Hornet Block III with the F-35C. Mass production of a CATOBAR compatible J-15B could also in turn initiate production of a CATOBAR compatible J-15D and J-15S variant derived from the same proven air frame.

At present, it is an open question whether the J-15B will succeed the standard J-15A in production. Certainly, unifying production to a single CATOBAR compatible airframe type would likely benefit economies of scale and general standardization efforts, and seems the most logical choice assuming CATOBAR compatible J-15Bs can also operate from the STOBAR carriers. If so, the total production run of J-15As (which started in the early 2010s) may only number around 50 aircraft total – a minimum sufficient number to fit out the airwing for the Liaoning and Shandong. J-15As in the foreseeable future could be flown primarily intensively to develop a larger institutional self-sustaining naval aviation community – naturally consuming their airframe hours faster – while the J-15B airframes are retained in a steadier combat capable regime. During this period, the J-15As would naturally remain combat capable and deployable if security requirements dictated their involvement; however, as a less capable aircraft than the J-15B, exploiting their airframe life to train pilots and deck crew as well as develop tactics may prove to be the best use of their flight hours.

This more rapid accumulation of flight hours would require J-15As to be retired faster than an aircraft fleet flown in normal training and operational cycles. Some of them might be withdrawn as soon as the late 2020s. These J-15As would in turn be replaced by J-15Bs (production of which will likely continue until the early 2030s, including in the form of catapult compatible J-15D EW aircraft), or perhaps by J-XYs (production likely to begin sometime after 2025), which would equip the Liaoning and Shandong for the rest of the STOBAR carriers’ service lives.

In any case, the J-15 program remains very active, with multiple variants under development and a likely healthy production run on the horizon. In the future, the Chinese navy’s selection of the J-15 as its first ever carrierborne fighter aircraft will likely be seen as a prescient decision. Indeed, as shown by other recent worldwide aircraft such as the F-15EX, Super Hornet Block III, F-16V, and modern Flanker variants, a well-designed airframe with modernization packages and upgrades can remain combat relevant and even remain in active production many decades after its progenitor first flew.