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China Perfects Its F-18
by James Dunnigan
October 11, 2013

The first Chinese combat aircraft built specifically for aircraft carrier use, the J-15, appears to have started mass production. Last November one was seen making touch and go landings on the new carrier Liaoning. Since then several J-15s have been seen at navy air bases painted as combat (gray), not development (yellow), aircraft. About twenty J-15s have been built so far for use in testing, and only five of them were exclusively for testing. All those built after the first five were apparently intended to become service aircraft once they had all the tweaks and modifications (for problems discovered during testing) applied. This allows China to get moving with training pilots and deck crews to handle actual carrier operations. This process could take up to a decade in order to create a core of experienced officers and NCOs (petty officers) who can safely and efficiently supervise these inherently very dangerous operations.

It’s also been noted that the J-15 can’t take off from the Liaoning carrying a lot of bombs or anti-ship missiles. You need a catapult launch to handle the extra weight. Ski jump decks are okay for fighters flying air defense missions but not anything requiring heavy loads. The new Chinese carrier under construction appears to be designed for catapult (flat, not ski jump deck) operations. Moreover, the front wheel of the J-15 is of the type required to handle catapult launches.

For most of the last decade China has been developing the J-15, which is a carrier version of the Russian Su-27. There is already a Russian version of this, called the Su-33. Russia refused to sell Su-33s to China, when it was noted that China was making illegal copies of the Su-27 (as the J-11) and did not want to place a big order for Su-33s but only wanted two, for "evaluation." China eventually got a Su-33 from Ukraine in 2001, which inherited some when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

The first prototypes of the J-15 were under construction for two years, and the aircraft made its first flight in 2010. The Russians were not happy with this development. Russian aviation experts openly derided the J-15, casting doubt on the ability of Chinese engineers to replicate key features of the Su-33. That remains to be seen, as the Chinese have screwed up copying Russian military tech in the past. But the Chinese have a lot of experience stealing foreign technology, so the J-15 may well turn out to be at least as good as the Su-33. China openly boasts of the J-15 being the equivalent of the 30 ton American F-18E. That remains to be seen, and right now the 33 ton J-15 seems more like the earlier 23 ton F-18A (a similar looking but quite different design from the F-18E).

Meanwhile, Russia itself has stopped using the Su-33 in favor of the cheaper MiG-29K (which is also being used by India). The 33 ton Su-33 is larger than the 21 ton MiG-29K, and both types of aircraft designed were to operate from the three 65,000 ton Kuznetsovs the Soviet Union was building in the 1980s. But when the Cold War ended in 1991, only the Kuznetsov was near completion. The second ship in the class, the Varyag, was sold to China and was rebuilt as the Liaoning. The smaller Gorshkov was rebuilt and sold to India (who believed the smaller MiG-29K was more suitable for this carrier).

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