A Tale of 2 Navies: India and China’s Carrier Airwing Development

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A Tale of 2 Navies: India and China’s Carrier Airwing Development

Despite the Indian Navy’s head start in the 1990s, China’s carrier capabilities and virtually all carrier-relevant industries have overtaken India’s in scale and sophistication.

A Tale of 2 Navies: India and China’s Carrier Airwing Development
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Josh097

This is the third and final part of a three-part series reviewing Indian and Chinese carrier procurement. Part one reviewed the history of China’s and India’s aircraft carrier procurement and part two outlined the future trajectory for the two countries’ carrier and escort fleets. Part three below explores the development of carrier airwings in both China and India.

Indian Navy Carrier Airwing Development

The Indian Navy (IN)’s carrier procurement plan of the late 1990s and early 2000s dovetailed with a plan to develop a carrier-based naval variant of the single engine LCA Tejas aircraft that was being pursued by the Indian Air Force at the time. This variant was aptly named the LCA Navy. Two flying prototypes of the LCA Navy were ultimately developed, with the lead prototype making its first flight in early 2012. The LCA Navy was a STOBAR configured aircraft with reinforced landing gear, tailhook, and additional LEVCON surfaces to enable the aircraft to operate from a carrier.

The IN expressed varying degrees of interest in the LCA Navy during the 2010s, while the two prototypes were tested from land-based ski jump and simulated carrier landing facilities. The IN opted out of the program in late 2016 and then hinted at a revival in 2018, including consideration of a slightly larger aircraft with rear tails named LCA Navy Mk 2. In early January 2020, the second LCA Navy prototype made Indian aviation history by being the first domestically produced fixed wing aircraft to land and take off from a carrier, the INS Vikramaditya. However, later in April 2020, the Indian Navy formally opted out of the LCA Navy program, instead seeking to pursue a new, larger twin engine deck-based fighter, appropriately named TEDBF, that would benefit from technologies and experience gained in the LCA Navy program.

In hindsight, the rationale of developing a STOBAR carrier-borne fighter based on a single engine, lightweight land-based fighter could be viewed as dubious, particularly in terms of the compromises that would have to be made in payload and weight for a small airframe limited in those characteristics already. However, the technical achievement in developing and flying two airframes and experience gained would be invaluable.

The TEDBF makes for a very sensible, more capable development building on the LCA Navy. Not only is the TEDBF equipped with two engines compared to the LCA Navy’s single engine, but the TEDBF also uses more modern and higher thrust F414 engines compared to the F404s equipped aboard the original LCA Navy. The TEDBF adopts a canard delta configuration, with folding wings, and a maximum takeoff weight of between 24 and 26 tons, nearly double that of the original LCA Navy, and will be equipped with various indigenous Indian weapons systems and avionics, including a domestic AESA radar. Official mockups of TEDBF also depict some modest measures to reduce the aircraft’s radar cross section (RCS) such as angled air intakes and a chined nose; however, the overall planform of the aircraft and its lack of any form of weapons bay relegates the aircraft to the status of a 4.5-generation fighter rather than a fifth-generation fighter, as suggested by some authors in the past. That said, TEDBF will still occupy a similar weight class to Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, and be slightly lighter than F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

As a STOBAR fighter, the TEDBF is intended to equip the INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant (including a folded footprint small enough to fit in the elevators of the latter), as replacements to the IN’s current Mig-29K fleet. By all measures, the TEDBF appears to be a sensible carrier-borne 4.5- generation fighter, albeit suffering from the same limitations of a ski jump takeoff method as all STOBAR fighters do.

However the lead prototype is not expected to make its first flight before 2026, and even assuming a relatively short development period of three or four years, it inevitably entails that the aircraft will not enter service until 2029-2030 at the earliest. As a cleansheet 4.5-generation fighter entering service by 2030, the TEDBF could be seen as somewhat backwards given the expected wide proliferation of fifth-generation fighters by other leading air forces in the world by that time. However, it is important to note that 4.5-generation fighters and upgraded fourth-generation fighters will remain in service globally, including among leading global air forces and navies. Furthermore, fourth and 4.5-generation fighter types will continue to represent the bulk of tactical fighters for air forces of the South Asian region, including by India’s major regional adversary Pakistan.

The elephant in the room is if (or when) the IN will embark on a program to develop a fifth-generation carrier-borne aircraft. On paper, the IAF’s twin engine Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project seems like a viable aircraft to develop into a carrier variant, benefitting from sharing key subsystems with the TEDBF, such as F414 engines, and likely enjoying a degree of technological overlap in avionics and weapons systems as well. However, the AMCA is currently not expected to make its first flight before 2025, and is not likely to enter service before 2030 (both dates themselves being somewhat optimistic projections); therefore it is unlikely that a naval variant could start serious development prior to the late 2020s, if at all. Furthermore, both the TEDBF and any future naval AMCA would also have to consider requirements for catapult compatibility, pending a decision on what configuration and takeoff method the IAC-2 may use.

In short, the IN’s current fleet of Mig-29K STOBAR fighters are likely to remain the IN’s primary carrier-based fighter for the 2020s, before being replaced around 2030 by the domestic 4.5-generation TEDBF. Whether this will be supplemented by the MRCBF program to import 57 foreign fighters is unclear. It is also unlikely for a carrier-borne fifth-generation fighter to enter IN service before the mid-2030s, with current projections of Indian aerospace workload divided between multiple Tejas variants, the TEDBF, and the AMCA, with no carrier-borne fifth-generation fighter alluded to, let alone announced.

No fixed wing carrier-borne AEW&C is under development for the IN at present, which is entirely unsurprising, given that no CATOBAR carrier is confirmed on the horizon. Longer term, if the IN chooses to pursue a CATOBAR configuration for IAC-2, the U.S. E-2D Advanced Hawkeye might prove to be a viable import to fulfill that role. A less likely possibility is to develop a clean sheet domestic aircraft. Regardless, the Russian Ka-31 will remain the helicopter-based AEW asset of IN carriers in the foreseeable future. The future IN carrier-borne helicopter complement for general utility and ASW tasks will likely be divided between domestic light helicopter types (namely the 5.5-ton Dhruv), the MH-60R from the U.S., and potentially the Russian Ka-226.

Chinese Navy Carrier Airwing Development

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is also awaiting the emergence of new types for its future fighter airwing. The STOBAR J-15 fighter remains in active production for the CV-16 and CV-17 STOBAR carriers, likely to supplement and replace existing J-15 airframes produced during the mid-2010s, which would have gained substantial flight hours by now as part of intensive institutional naval aviator development. As of October 2021, the total J-15 production count is estimated at around 50 airframes and growing.

As I have written previously, a 4.5-generation and catapult compatible “J-15B” variant is likely to emerge in the near future to equip carrier 003, with some recent hints to that effect as well. A notional J-15B would likely be equipped with a similar generation of weapons and sensor suites aboard the J-20 and current 4.5-generation fighter types like the J-16 and J-10C (key subsystems such as PL-15 BVRAAM, PL-10 SRAAM, AESA radar, and modern datalinks and cockpits being most notable here). The addition of catapult compatibility would allow the J-15 to make full use of its impressive Flanker lineage airframe in terms of payload and fuel. Catapults allow aircraft to launch at maximum takeoff weights across a wider variety of launch conditions compared to launching from a ski jump. Since 2016, at least one catapult compatible J-15T test airframe has been actively conducting tests and launches from the PLAN’s land-based catapult and naval aviation facility in Huangdicun.

The J-15B is likely to leverage the mature in-service avionics and weapons suites that equip the related J-16 multirole fighter, while replacing STOBAR J-15 production on the current active and “hot” J-15 production line. Given the above, it is plausible that the J-15B could enjoy a relatively short developmental cycle, perhaps as short as two years, given the large foundation of pre-development work and shared subsystems. If the J-15B emerges within the next year or so as currently expected, it may be ready for handover to the PLAN before 2025. A CATOBAR compatible variant of the J-15D EW/EA aircraft is also expected to emerge, with common subsystems shared with the land-based J-16D EW/EA aircraft that was recently unveiled in a missionized form at Zhuhai Airshow 2021, consistent with rumors of THE J-16D entering service within the last year.

The PLAN’s fifth-generation carrier-borne fighter – previously dubbed by this author as the “J-XY,” but also given the interim names of J-35 and J-21 in the past – is now all but confirmed to be a derivative of the FC-31 export-oriented fifth-generation demonstrator. The appearance of a FC-31 variant mockup (with a noticeably wider wingspan than regular) aboard the PLAN’s land-based carrier mockup facility, combined with recent hints by from the Chinese aerospace industry and an increasing crescendo of buildup from the Chinese-language PLA watching grapevine, suggest that the J-XY is likely to emerge within the next year if not sooner.

The J-XY will be a CATOBAR compatible fighter, likely to be first powered by interim WS-13E engines before progressing to the WS-19 engine later in the 2020s. It will leverage the extensive flight testing already conducted by the two existing FC-31 airframes and may feature common subsystems with the in-production J-20 as well. However, despite the pre-developmental work related to J-XY, the aircraft would likely still need a five-year developmental and testing period by virtue of being a relatively complex fifth-generation carrier-borne fighter. Assuming a maiden flight between late 2021 and mid-2022, entry into service sometime around 2026 could be plausible, by which stage carrier 003 would have entered service for a year or more.

Overall, the direction of the PLAN’s carrier-borne fighter fleet is relatively clear: before 2025, a 4.5-generation CATOBAR compatible “J-15B” is likely to enter service, and after 2025, the fifth-generation CATOBAR “J-XY” fighters will likely arrive to complement it. Both types will make up the mainstay airwing of carrier 003 (as well as any additional CATOBAR carriers built going forwards). What remains unclear is whether the J-15B and J-XY would also be capable of operating from the STOBAR carriers CV-16 and CV-17. Needless to say, such flexibility would greatly enhance the capability and longevity of both the Liaoning and the Shandong.

The PLAN’s fixed-wing carrier-borne AEW&C, KJ-600 (also known as H-600), remains in active flight testing since its maiden flight in 2020. Given the extensive and recent experience of the Chinese aerospace industry in developing modern AEW&C aircraft, and the pre-developmental work of the JZY-01 testbed, it is reasonable to envision the KJ-600 being service ready around the time that the 003 enters service near 2025. Naturally, the KJ-600 will be unable to operate from the STOBAR CV-16 and CV-17, which will continue to use the Z-18J AEW helicopter instead.

The helicopter complements of Chinese carriers will likely be divided between the existing five-ton Z-9 and 13-ton Z-8/18 families for the general utility and ASW roles, before gradually being supplemented and replaced by the 10-ton Z-20 family.

What Comes Next?

The journey of the Indian Navy and the Chinese PLAN and their respective pursuits of carrier capability make for an interesting case study in understanding the determinants of naval and aerospace industry. While both navies have seen successes and setbacks in their pursuit of a carrier capability, the speed and extent with which the PLAN has managed to develop, iterate and commission new carriers and carrier-relevant platforms (including escorts, aircraft types, and the aircraft carriers themselves) has been somewhat brisker than that of the Indian Navy. Despite the not insignificant lead that the Indian Navy held in operating carriers at the outset of the 1990s, the trajectory of the PLAN’s carrier program and the growth of its carrier capabilities and virtually all carrier-relevant industries have overtaken the IN in scale and sophistication, with no signs of reversal on the immediate horizon. Ultimately, this outcome can be seen as a reflection of the economic and industry fortunes of the respective nations across the relevant time period.

Going forward, it is likely that each navy will pursue further carriers into the future, but the shape and scale of this procurement is unclear. It depends on the strategic direction of each navy, as well as the ongoing evolution of contemporary naval warfare in context of increasingly joint and multi-domain warfighting, all within the context of budgetary opportunity cost.

Debates in the IN about the priority of future aircraft carriers versus nuclear submarines are an excellent example of the importance of careful force structure planning in relation to strategy. Similar debates are likely taking place within the PLAN, especially against the backdrop of the newly completed nuclear submarine production site at Bohai (with evidence of even more capacity being added as well), though this likely relates to how many additional carriers will be sought and the exact speed of their purchase rather than whether they or not the should be procured.

Despite this, the ability of carriers to provide a mobile, organic fixed wing aviation capability at sea, to project air superiority, aerial strike, airborne early warning and surveillance, is not a mission that can be fulfilled by any other type of platform. The utility of carriers will likely only be augmented with the development of increasingly capable and complex unmanned aerial vehicles. Despite the persistent vulnerabilities of surface ships to air and missile attack and undersea threats, history has shown that appropriate escorts, strategies, and tactics can allow aircraft carriers to remain survivable.