How Effective Will China's Carrier-Based Fighters Be?

Yesterday we brought you pictures of China's growing fleet of carrier-based fighters, the J-15, basically an updated copy of Russia's Sukhoi Su-33.

Today, we're bringing you exceprt from an analysis of what the J-15 will mean for China's neighbors written last sumer by DT's go to China guru Andrew Erickson.

Basically, the J-15, equipped with modern AESA radars and air-to-air missiles on par with the U.S.-made AIM-120 AMRAAM, ten-percent more thrust to weirgh than the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and an estimated combat radius of roughly 400-miles, will be a useflu tool for China to project power in its neigborhood and possibly intimitade neighbors with less sophisticated militaries but the jets won't be the key to major carrier operations around the world. At the end of the day, China is going to have to develop bigger carriers capable of launching a variety of heavy aircraft using catapults instead of smaller carriers that can only launch fighters using a skip jump ramp if it wants to conduct truly effective carrier operations.

Here's Erickson's take:

While a new step for China and an important indicator, the J-15 is limited in capability; its launch platform even more so. It is important not to overstate the land attack and anti-ship potential of the J-15 airframe flying off of short take off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) carriers such as “Shilang,” particularly against large U.S. military facilities like Guam and Diego Garcia. Even if J-15s could get off the deck with a reasonable weapons load, their range would be greatly reduced—it would be significantly less coming off of the ski jump than for comparable U.S. aircraft coming off catapults. China could in theory refuel planes in the air (assuming China buys or develops a buddy pod) but this sort of “operational triage” would reduce the air group by turning a significant number of fighters into tankers. Employed in isolation, buddy pods are of limited utility (and might not be all that launch-able from ski jumps in the first place).
To obtain significantly extended range it is necessary to use large tankers, which the U.S. Air Force (USAF) employs extensively, but China lacks. Fuel is the heaviest thing an aircraft carries, it seems unlikely that a ski jump- launched J-15 with a buddy pod would have significant ability to provision other fighters. Even a catapult launched F-18 with a buddy store only has about 4,000 lb of fuel to transfer. Given the limitations on number of aircraft carried and the takeoff weight limits of ski jump launched aircraft, “Shilang” could not generate operationally significant numbers of sorties unless the game was to get one or two aircraft into a strike firing position. Essentially, they would just be able to do aerial sniping against weakly armed opponents. Combined with the need to hold some jets back for defense, then, Chinese planners would face with a very difficult choice—attack at longer ranges with a greatly reduced strike package (probably insufficient to seriously damage a large target), or bring the carrier in close to get more aircraft on target and expose the entire carrier group to greater risk.
While a first-generation Chinese carrier would not represent a threat to U.S. ships and facilities in the way that the U.S. uses carriers, however, it could nevertheless be employed to provide significantly increased air defense to a group of surface ships in order to get them within ASCM range of a U.S. carrier group, or—should the Chinese develop a naval land attack cruise missile (LACM)—to get the LACM shooters within range of a key U.S. base. The same is true of ASW protection in theory, although this might be done better by additional destroyer-based helicopters, with which China has more experience and which would not offer such a large, consolidated, and easily detectable target set.

In addition, while a Chinese carrier group would not last very long in a head-to-head confrontation with the U.S. Navy, the very existence of a Chinese carrier capability, even a limited one, would potentially exert significant pressure on China’s South China Sea neighbors to settle maritime disputes in ways favorable to China. If regional leaders perceive “Shilang” as a confirmation of waxing Chinese naval power and something that erodes the credibility of U.S. security guarantees, this could potentially prompt Vietnam, Malaysia, and others to seek bilateral accommodation with China.

Aside from a focused worst-case mission to damage a very specific target at the risk of limited operational effectiveness and high friendly losses then, the J-15’s development is part of a long-term PLAN Aviation effort to “dip its toe” in the water in order to build more robust capabilities in the long run. The oceans are vast and promising, but the water can be cold and the salt often stings.

Remaining issues & challenges.

1)      Since ski jump launches reduce an aircraft’s potential fuel and weapons payload relative to catapult launches, it will be telling to see if China’s future indigenous carrier hulls employ a catapult launch instead. For operations outside of the range of China’s handful of land-based large tanker aircraft (i.e., essentially the entire strategic zone between the straits of Hormuz and Malacca), this will greatly limit combat effectiveness since J-15s launched from the carriers will be able to carry fewer weapons and can only rely on their internal fuel stores. Even in local contingencies, Chinese forces would quickly face a shortage of tankers, particularly given China’s trouble acquiring the IL-78s needed to refuel Flanker-derivative planes like the J-15.

2)      A related question concerns the ability of the plane’s landing gear to absorb the impact of landing. The heavier the machine at landing, the more stress on the airframe. If a pilot lands too fast or the arresting gear is set for the wrong weight, then the hook could come off the airplane or the arresting gear engines could be ruined. Cross deck pendants (flexible steel arresting cables/wires strung across the carrier deck to catch the arresting hook of an incoming aircraft) do break, but rarely. When they do, due mostly to a faulty swedge fitting (where the pendant attaches on each side to the wires that go down into the engines) or poor quality assurance in pendant fabrication, the results are gruesome. Many people on deck are killed and maimed, not to mention the damage to aircraft.

3)      To function at maximum combat effectiveness, carrier-based fighters need AEW and tanker support. The U.S. and French Navies use variants of the E-2 Hawkeye to provide AEW capability. The tanker issue may prove more challenging for operations beyond China’s immediate region. U.S. naval aviators typically rely on USAF tankers operating from forward bases in the Middle East and other regions to support them during expeditionary air operations. China would need to negotiate access agreements of some type to deploy tankers to support any possible future operations in the Western Indian Ocean and Northeastern Africa.

4)      One question that will affect the J-15’s combat potential directly is: will China deploy more advanced, longer-range air-to-air and air-launched anti-ship missiles in the next few years? If China can build a sufficiently robust ISR and targeting chain, missiles in the class of Russia’s 300km-range Novator K-100 or Vympel R-37 andBrahMos-class air-launched ASCMs (~300 km range) would help compensate for range restrictions induced by lower fuel payloads during ski jump operations. This would be in keeping with China’s larger “missile-centric” approach.

5)      If China plans to fully indigenize J-15 production, it will need to have the domestically made WS-10 turbofan engine or other variant attain world-class reliability standards to enable safe and confident overwater operation. Global Timesclaims that Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is series-producing WS-10 engines for the J-11B, but other sources indicate that reliability issues remain, which is a major safety issue for an overwater aircraft. The engines would also need to be made salt water-resistant to allow marine operation. Many analysts believe the J-15 is now using Russian-made AL-31 engines, which China is able to refit and overhaul on its own. Aeroengine development is among the greatest technological challenges for any aerospace power, and China has yet to demonstrate top-tier indigenous production capabilities here.

6)      What types of follow-on modifications might SAC make to the J-15 as it moves toward becoming operational? We think it is realistic to expect modifications including thrust vectoring engine nozzles similar to those found on other Flanker-derived aircraft and changes to engine intakes and other structures to reduce radar cross section. The aircraft’s avionics suite will almost certainly become more capable over the next 5 years.

7)      How many J-15s will PLAN Aviation acquire? Deploying a carrier with a full component of highly capable strike fighters sends a very different strategic message than deploying a carrier outfitted primarily with helicopters.

8)      It will be interesting see if Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group promotes a follow-on version of the slightly-navalized variant of its J-10 fighter that it has already developed—perhaps as an alternative or supplement to SAC’s J-15. This assumes, of course, that the J-10 can be turned into a successful carrier fighter. The U.S. examined just such a possibility with the F-16, it turned out to not be a suitable design. Rumors about a carrier-capable J-10 have circulated on the Chinese Internet for years, but open sources have not yet offered concrete evidence of such a development. Delta-wing canard fighters can operate from a carrier, although they may require substantial strengthening in order to withstand the rigors of arrested landings and possibly catapult launches if China’s future carriers move away from ski jumps. This can sometimes make a fighter too heavy, as exemplified by BAE Systems’ proposed navalized Eurofighter Typhoon, which can operate from ski jump carriers but would be too heavy relative to competitors if it were beefed up for catapult operations. In a positive example, the French Rafale C is an effective, combat proven aircraft with successful land- and carrier-based versions. A competitive twin engine naval J-10 using Russian RD33 engines or the WS-13 turbofan China has developed for the FC-1/J-17 export fighter would likely have aerodynamic characteristics similar to the Rafale.

Read the rest of Erickson's report at China Signpost.


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