This past week, there was an article on People’s daily called China’s J-15 fighter superior to Russian Su-33

I had a couple of thoughts reading through it. My first thought was that finally China is actually defending itself against some of these Western and Russian accusations. It drove me crazy back in the days to see Russian media quoting different people blasting China for copying its weaponry and for making excuses for not fulfilling contracts like the one for IL-76/78. Through all of that, there was nobody from AVIC1 or PLA that spoke against some of those claims. The only times I heard official denials were regarding claims of China selling J-10s to Iran and purchasing Su-35s from Russia. Those were clearly crazy rumours that spread because China did not step in earlier to deny these things. Going forward, I hope CMC/PLA puts a stronger PR effort out there to defend itself against some of the Russian claims.

My second thought was that while it was good to see China defending against Russian claims that a copy can never be better than the original, it should be obvious to everyone that J-15 is a superior fighter jet to the original Su-33. However, it’s really not saying much, because J-15 is being compared against something that was developed in the late 80s. If after 20+ years, J-15 is not better than Su-33, then SAC should stop developing and producing aircraft. Compared to the original Su-33, J-15 include:

  • Having multi-role capability and can fire wide range of AAM, AShM, ARM and ground attack weapons
  • Having a more powerful and multi-role fire control system (probably using an AESA radar)
  • Having more powerful IRST/FLIR system, EW suite, RWR and MAWs
  • Having more modern avionics with modern data bus, mission computers, holographic HUDs, modern MMI and fiber optic wiring.
  • Using more composite material and lighter electronics to give better T/W ratio

Now, if the Russians had invested in modernizing Su-33, it could do all of the above. Although, we could argue whether it has the same wide range of ground attack weapons as China or if the sensors/avionics is as advanced or more advanced. It has chosen not to, because it has picked Mig-29K has the future naval fighter.

There are many reasons why it made more sense for the Russians to go with a modern Mig-29K instead of Su-33. My opinion is that India had already paid for the development of a modern Mig-29K as part of its effort to develop a 3 carrier fleet. At the same time, China had rejected Russia’s 3 step proposal of first taking the original Su-33s, then upgrading to a multi-role version with Su-30MK2 sensor/weapon suite and eventually upgrading to a final version with PESA radar. As a result, it made more sense for Russia to go with the already developed naval aircraft with production lines rather than re-opening the production lines and pay for the development cost of a modern Su-33. At the same time, Mikoyan needed these orders a lot more than Sukhoi (which has a long backlog of domestic and export orders).

Looking back, I think that China obviously made the right decision to develop J-15 on its own with some help from the purchase of T-10K-3. The experience from developing naval version of J-11B will help SAC develop next generation of naval aircraft like a naval version of J-31. At the same time, there was no reason for China to pay the Russians to develop modern version of Su-33 if it could develop a modern version of J-15 by itself. It’s similar to my last post about China’s choice of purchasing MKK rather than getting involved in a long running project like MKI. Imports from Russia are always considered interim solutions. If domestic options can be developed in time, there really is no reason to get involved in a foreign project and pay for the development cost.

Looking ahead, I think China is also better off with a J-15 class fighter than a Mig-29K class fighter. There was a competition between SAC and CAC over the first generation of a naval fighter jet. Flanker variant won over the J-10 variant because it was considered to have better multi-role capabilities. The current version of J-15 is already a multi-role aircraft. In the future, we could see different versions of J-15 like a single-seat buddy-to-buddy refueling, a two-seat EW version like Growler or a two-seated mini AEWC&C version. These are not things you can do with a lighter naval aircraft.