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No Retirement Any Time Soon; Why China’s Elite J-15 Flying Shark Carrier Based Fighter Will Remain Highly Viable for Decades to Come

July 12th - 2018

A number of recent reports from predominantly Western sources have indicted that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has been frustrated with the performance of its J-15 Flying Shark carrier based air superiority fighter, and has sought to retire the platform in the near future in favour of a more reliable and lighter aircraft. An analysis of the J-15 program however to the contrary indicates a highly successful fighter program, and one which the PLA continues to invest heavily in and have high hopes for in the future. Having entered service in 2013, the Flying Shark was developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation based on the airframe of the Su-27 Flanker, one which the PLA has a great deal of experience operating. China’s armed forces are the largest operators of Flanker based fighter airframes in the world, and technologies from a number of platforms including the J-11B, Su-30 and prototypes of the Soviet Su-33 acquired from Ukraine were all integrated onto the J-15 to produce a cutting edge carrier based platform.

The J-15 boasts an impressive range, maximum altitude and and thrust/weight ratio, inherited from the advanced Flanker airframe, and has a 10% superior thrust/weight ratio and a 25% lower wing loading than the U.S. Navy’s elite F-18E Super Hornet carrier based fighter. With the U.S. Navy having retried its F-14 Tomcat without a suitable replacement, and Russia set to imminently retire its Su-33, the J-15 will have a considerably higher operational altitude than any other carrier based fighter in the world - and will be the only carrier based fighter in service using a heavy air superiority airframe. While the Flying Shark has been in a number of accidents, with three fighters lost so far, and this has commonly been cited by Western reports as the cause of the aircraft's apparent failure, such losses are in fact hardly unusual for a new fighter - particularly a carrier based platform. Of the 712 American F-14 Tomcat carrier based fighters built, over 160 were destroyed in accidents - this being despite the U.S. having considerably more experience in operating carrier based fighters than China - which had none before 2013. While China’s J-15 has suffered three losses to accidents in its first five years, America’s F-14 suffered almost 40 in its first half decade in service. The F-14 was nevertheless considered one of the most successful carrier based fighters in U.S. history.

Not only is the J-15 relatively reliable, but the design has only been operating at a fraction of its true potential and is set to become an increasingly formidable asset with time. Carrier based Flanker airframes were initially intended by the Soviet Navy to operate from its Ulyanovsk Class supercarriers which could better accommodate their large airframes and could use catapult launch systems to deploy the fighters with a full payload. Only after the cancellation of the program with the USSR’s disintegration were Flankers pressed into service on smaller Kuznetsov Class carrier decks - the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov and the Chinese Liaoling and Type 001. While the PLA Navy has adapted the Flanker airframe well to operate from its existing carriers, the J-15 will excel considerably should it be deployed from heavier warships with advanced catapult systems such as the upcoming Type 002 and Type 003 warships. These would allow the fighters to make full use of their long range and high payloads, and would provide the PLA Navy with maritime air superiority capabilities qualitatively unmatched by any rival.

Other than new carriers, considerable investments have been made in upgrading the J-15 airframe itself to better provide for the PLA’s defence needs. One notable sign of the PLA’s continued faith in the airframe is the development of the J-15D/J-17 electronic attack jet based on the Flying Shark’s airframe, prototypes of which were first sighted in 2018, which will give Chinese carrier strike groups the world’s only equivalent to the U.S. E/A-18G Growler attack jet - albeit a faster, longer ranged and higher flying one. A number of reports have also indicated that future J-15 fighters, including those under development for the Type 001 carrier, will integrate a number of next generation technologies developed since the aircraft’s first induction in 2013. The PLA Air Force has notably extensively applied next generation technologies, including stealth coatings, three dimensional thrust vectoring and AESA radars to its J-11D air superiority fighters - a platform also based on the Flanker air superiority airframe set to enter service in 2018. This demonstrates the military’s continued faith in the viability of upgraded Flanker airframes in the coming decades, and new J-15 jets are highly likely to integrate similar technologies. Deploying the latest air to air missiles such as the PL-15 and PL-12D, the aircraft will be comparable and likely in many ways superior to the Russian Su-35 Flanker, and the J-15 Flying Shark will surpass all rival carrier based fighters by a considerable margin in its air superiority capabilities. Ultimately the J-15 is unlikely to see retirement in the coming decades - and it is set not only to remain viable but to become increasingly exceptional as it evolves into a more capable carrier based fighter.

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