I often see articles on the web warning of the impending Chinese naval power and the impact on American’s naval dominance. I find most of them to be badly written and low on facts. However, there are some authors how have followed PLAN for a long time and write some really good stuff. Andrew Erickson is one of the few PLA followers that I truly respect. His latest article with Gabe Collins on the J-15 program is another quality piece of work. I would recommend all PLAN followers to read it.
The authors did a good job of going over all of the potential problems associated with operating J-15 on a STOBAR carrier like Varyag. They brought up the reduced maximum take-off weight of J-15 vs land based flankers. They brought up how US carrier groups can make use of USAF tankers from forward base points to extend the range of USN air wing, but this option is not available to PLAN in the foreseeable future. Another limitation to Chinese air wing is the lack of fixed-wing ISR assets and ASW assets like E-2, S-2 and S-3. I think the following lines sums up the entire article perfectly.
The J-15’s emergence offers potential capabilities that are noteworthy because China is starting from such a low baseline in naval aviation that virtually any progress could make a big difference.
For these reasons, Chinese ski jump carriers simply cannot be used in any of the combat roles that U.S. Navy carriers have performed.
I think most of us would agree with the assessment that J-15 on Varyag does not represent any kind of game changing capability, but rather the most obvious option for PLAN to start off. Varyag was not designed for the same kind of missions that PLAN has in mind for future carrier groups. From much of what I read on Chinese sources, it’s seems that PLAN wants to follow USN’s direction in carrier operation. However, it clearly does not have the same aircraft, carrier producing capability and general weapon system available to achieve that in the near future. As a result, it would have to develop carrier operation doctrine based on what it has at disposal. I do think that Varyag will see more time in service than just as a training carrier based on all of the new sensors and CIWS they have installed on it, but the first domestic carriers will give us much better idea of the direction of PLAN. It’s with this that I disagree with some of the points made in the article.
The article completely dismissed most of the missions that J-15 could have based on the assumption that it will always be flying off a STOBAR carrier. Based on what I have seen (including the recent photos of fixed wing AEW), I would say that the first domestic carrier will probably be a CATOBAR carrier. In fact, I’ve read that PLAN picked the J-11 platform over J-10 platform for naval aviation due to its potentials in performing different types of missions. China does not have the same fleet of SSGNs or cruisers that Soviet Union had to launch long range supersonic missiles. The shipwreck missile launch module has also been removed from Varyag. China’s current helo fleet is also likely to be restricted to AEW and ASW missions. So, I don’t think China will be relying on helicopters or deck-launched ASCMs (as mentioned in this article) to attack opposing naval forces. Maritime strike and anti-ship missions will be carried out by J-15 regardless of whether it is operating off a STOBAR carrier or a CATOBAR carrier.
I also think the authors really missed the point when they speculated that China would need longer ranged AAM and AShM to compensate for the shortened range of J-15. Russian missiles like R-37 and Brahmos are extremely bulky and would significantly cut down the range of a naval aircraft. J-15 would be able to carry at most one AShM of Brahmos size or two missiles of R-37 size. The original Su-33 could not perform any mission outside of Combat Air Patrol, because Su-27 was purely an air superiority fighter at the time. Even if Su-27 had multi-role capability, the limited takeoff weight from STOBAR carrier would’ve drastically reduced the usefulness of most of the current Russian anti-ship missiles and ground attack weaponry. Most of the recent Chinese weapons development has aimed at creating smaller weapons (PGMs, ground attack missiles, AAM and AShMs) that can be carried by smaller fighters (like J-10 and JF-17) and UCAVs. J-15 could possibly take off with a couple of YJ-83s (about 700 kg each) or a couple of KD-88s (also about 700 kg each) and still have useful combat range. It would also be able to carry a number of PGMs similar to JDAM and SDB and attack land based targets. If China does build a CATOBAR carrier, J-15 will theoretically be able to carry as much weapon as F-18E/F, while having comparable range and CAP time. So, I think the combat potential of J-15 should not be limited to the so called “missile-centric” approach.
In conclusion, I think this article did a very good job at pointing out the problems facing PLAN as it is about to launch its first carrier and operate its first naval aircraft. The appearance of J-15 is not a game-changer in anyway, but it will be a tremendous learning process for PLAN. They have a long way to go before becoming competent at carrier operations. At the same time, I think it is also worthy to explore the potential of J-15 on CATOBAR carriers, because I believe PLAN is moving in that direction. J-15 really has the potential to perform all of the roles that F-18 E/F performs for USN. It’d be interesting to see whether or not they will develop EW version of J-15 like Growler or buddy-to-buddy refueling version of J-15. They have already done this with the JH-7 platform, so it should not be too difficult to also do this on J-15. It will also be interesting to see what else they plan to join J-15 in the air wing. We’ve already seen a naval trainer in JT-9 and naval AEW helicopter in Ka-31 and Z-8. I would think that other variants of Z-8 and possibly Z-15 will also become part of the air wing. And with all of the resources that China has put into UAVs and UCAVs, I think we will see them on there too. The possibilities increase even more if China does build CATOBAR carriers. The naval AEW project currently in development (and possibly other projects) would be able to take-off. As with everything else in PLAN, I’m just waiting patiently for all those developments.