Amid massive simultaneous programs by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) to develop both new electronic warfare (EW) aircraft and new carrier based support aircraft, details of the PLA Navy's latest EW attack platform have recently emerged. The PLA has developed a number of its tried and tested long range combat aircraft, including the JH-7 and J-16 strike fighters and H-6 strategic bombers, for an electronic warfare role, and it was long speculated that the military could try to develop an electronic attack platform based on the J-15 Flying Shark carrier based fighter. With existing electronic warfare platforms having relied heavily on their long range to deploy from coastal airfields to project power into China's surrounding seas, namely the South China Sea where tensions have recently risen in light of growing military deployments by Western powers and exercises which Beijing has deemed provocative. These aircraft have largely been operated by the PLA Navy rather than the Air Force due to their maritime role. While effective for power projection, a carrier based electronic warfare platform could well allow for a faster response to threats in the region and provide better protection to the PLA Navy's assets.
The PLA's development of an electronic warfare aircraft based on the J-15 comes as the navy is set to induct its second aircraft carrier, the Type 001, into active service following sea trials in the Spring of 2018. The Chinese carrier fleet is set to grow rapidly, and while the Type 001 is the country's first fully indigenous carrier two more platforms are currently under construction. Future carriers will be equipped with superior launch systems, including cutting edge electromagnetic launch systems (EMALS) allowing them to launch heavier and better armed fighters. An electronic warfare variant of the Flying Shark could when deploying from these warships serve as one of the most capable carrier based electronic warfare platforms in the world, with a range, payload and operational altitude unmatched by rival aircraft of its kind. The EW platform, known either as J-17 or J-15D with its final designation unconfirmed, will perform an analogous role to the United States Navy's EA-18G Growler, an aircraft based on the United States' own elite carrier based fighter - the F-18E Super Hornet.
The J-17/ J-15D boasts two sizeable electronic warfare pods on its wingtips and advanced electronic intelligence equipment. It is set to make full use of technologies developed for electronic warfare variants of the J-16 - a fighter making use of a highly similar airframe derived from the same Su-27 origin. The J-17/ J-15D was developed as a twin seat aircraft, and without the need for a heavy weapons payload it is likely have a significantly greater range than combat variants of the Flying Shark, possibly even deploying external fuel tanks in future as the U.S. EA-18G does. With the importance of electronic warfare fast growing, Beijing has been one of the greatest investors in such capabilities to enhance the performance of its armed forces. The PLA has recently deployed electronic warfare systems to outposts across the South China Sea, and reportedly even carried out electronic attacks to disrupt operations of U.S. Naval assets deployed to waters China claims as its sovereign territory. The U.S. Navy's growing reliance on unmanned platforms, and deployment of growing numbers of drones to the Pacific to support a broader military pivot to Asia, could well leave it particularly vulnerable to a growth in Chinese electronic warfare capabilities.