Chinese Media Takes Aim at J-15 Fighter

In an unusual departure for mainland Chinese-language media, the Beijing-based Sina Military Network (SMN) criticized the capabilities of the carrier-borne J-15 Flying Shark as nothing more than a “flopping fish.”

On Sept. 22, the state-controlled China Daily Times reported the new aircraft carrier Liaoning had just finished a three-month voyage and conducted over 100 sorties of “various aircraft,” of which the J-15 “took off and landed on the carrier with maximum load and various weapons.” This report was also carried on the official Liberation Army Daily.

Contradicting any report by official military or government media is unusual in China given state control of the media.

What sounded more like a rant than analysis, SMN, on Sept. 23, reported the new J-15 was incapable of flying from the Liaoning with heavy weapons, “effectively crippling its attack range and firepower.”

The fighter can take off and land on the carrier with two YJ-83K anti-ship missiles, two PL-8 air-to-air missiles, and four 500-kilogram bombs. But a weapons “load exceeding 12 tons will not get it off the carrier’s ski jump ramp.” This might prohibit it from carrying heavier munitions such as PL-12 medium-range air-to-air missiles.

To further complicate things, the J-15 can carry only two tons of weapons while fully fueled. “This would equip it with no more than two YJ-83K and two PL-8 missiles,” thus the “range of the YJ-83K prepared for the fighter will be shorter than comparable YJ-83K missiles launched from larger PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] vessels. The J-15 will be boxed into less than 120 [kilometers] of attack range.”

Losing the ability to carry the PL-12 medium-range air-to-air missiles will make the J-15 an “unlikely match” against other foreign carrier-based fighters.
“Even the Vietnam People’s Air Force can outmatch the PL-8 short-range missile. Without space for an electronic countermeasure pod, a huge number of J-15s must be mobilized for even simple missions, a waste for the PLA Navy in using the precious space aboard its sole aircraft carrier in service.”

Built by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, the J-15 is a copy of the Russian-made Su-33. China acquired an Su-33 prototype from the Ukraine in 2001. Avionics are most likely the same as the J-11B (Su-27). In 2006, Russia accused China of reverse engineering the Su-27 and canceled a production license to build 200 Su-27s after only 95 aircraft had been built.

Vasily Kashin, a China military specialist at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, suggests the J-15 might be a better aircraft than the Su-33. “I think that there might be some improvements because electronic equipment now weighs less than in the 1990s,” he said. It could also be lighter due to new composites that China is using on the J-11B that were not available on the original Su-33.

Despite improvements, Kashin wonders why the Chinese bothered with the Su-33 given the fact that Russia gave up on it. Weight problems and other issues forced the Russians to develop the MiG-29K, which has better power-to-weight ratio and can carry more weapons. “Of course, when the Chinese get their future carriers equipped with catapults, that limitation will not apply and they will be able to fully realize Su-33/J-15 potential — huge range and good payload,” Kashin said.

The Liaoning is the problem. The carrier is small — 53,000 tons — and uses a ski jump. From Russia’s experience, “taking off from the carrier with takeoff weight exceeding some 26 tons is very difficult,” Kashin said.

Roger Cliff, a China defense specialist for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said this is “one of the reasons why sky-jump carriers can’t be considered to be equivalent to full-size carriers with catapults.”

A number of unanswered questions are raised by the SMN report, Kashin said, including the amount of fuel on board, carrier speed, wind speed and direction.

Cliff also raises issues with SMN’s conclusions. “It doesn’t make sense to me that the J-15 can take off with YJ-83s but not PL-12s, since the YJ-83 weighs about 1,800 pounds and the PL-12 weighs about 400 pounds.”
A possible answer is that it was unable to take off with both. “The article says that it can only carry ‘two tons’ of missiles and munitions when fully fueled, which is 4,400 pounds, and two YJ-83s plus two PL-8s would weigh over 4,000 pounds, leaving no margin for any PL-12s. But I don’t see why it couldn’t take off with PL-12s if it wasn’t carrying YJ-83s.” Cliff concludes that the J-15 should be capable of carrying PL-12s when it is flying purely air-to-air missions and that “it probably just can’t carry PL-12s when it is flying a strike mission.”

Kashin said the J-15, unlike the Su-33, should have a “potent” internal countermeasures suite, thus allowing for more space for weapons. The SMN report suggests it has an external electronic countermeasures (ECM) pod.

Weight issues should also not be too much of a problem for the J-15, he said, since the Su-33 did fly from the same type of carrier carrying “6-8 air-to-air missiles and Sorbtsia ECM pods carrying something like 6 to 6.5 tons of fuel.”

China’s next carriers will reportedly use electromagnetic catapults, Kashin said, but “limitations are significant when it comes to air-to-surface weapons, which limit the J-15’s use as a multirole fighter.

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