China Confirms J-15 Carrier-based Fighter
Aircraft based On Russian-Designed Su-33
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Chinese state-run media have issued the first official photographs of the J-15 Flying Shark carrier-based fighter, the latest revelation in a year that has already seen several from traditionally opaque Beijing.
The disclosure comes on the heels of unconfirmed Chinese-language blogs that China may have test-flown the J-18 Red Eagle vertical/short-takeoff-and-landing (VSTOL) fighter earlier this month. And in January, Chinese media heralded the first test flight of the stealthy J-20 Black Eagle fighter.
But not everyone is convinced.
“Lot of J numbers floating around, the credence of which, until otherwise proven, I treat as suspect,” said a British aerospace defense analyst.
The J-18 may have grown out of a desire to mimic the AV-8 Harrier, which China has watched with interest since the 1980s.
But “VSTOL propulsion sets a range of demanding engineering challenges in an area that Beijing still struggles with,” the analyst said. “I suppose they could always have tried to gain access to Yak-141 Freestyle engine technology from Moscow.” The Yak-141 was a vertical takeoff-and-landing carrier-based fighter program launched by the Soviet Union in the 1980s and abandoned in 1991.
The J-15, on the other hand, is modeled on the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-based fighter and is being developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Corp. (SAC), analysts said. Some of its avionics and equipment comes from the J-11B multirole fighter program, which is based on Russia’s Su-27 fighter.
“China appears intent on developing a blue-water capability,” said Jim Thomas, the vice president of Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Its development represents another step toward the PLA Navy’s ambition of developing its own carrier aviation program.” Thomas said Chinese aircraft carriers do not pose a serious threat to the U.S. Navy. “They could, however, be used to intimidate other states in the region,” he said.
Many analysts seem to concur that China’s new aircraft carrier, the former Soviet Varyag, would play a more useful role in the South China Sea, said Toshi Yoshihara, author of the new book, “Red Star Over the Pacific.” “The weaker Southeast Asian states are less able to respond to a Chinese carrier presence, especially in the absence of U.S. intervention,” Yoshihara said.
Occasional Chinese shows of force could influence the calculus of regional capitals while bolstering Beijing’s claims.
“Imagine the Varyag pulling into Changi Naval Base in Singapore, but again, the move would be largely symbolic,” he said.
Yoshihara said the new carrier could be used off Taiwan’s east coast, “but only in a limited way.” China already boasts an array of shore-based aircraft and missiles to overwhelm the island’s defenses, he said.
“The carrier is useful to the extent that it adds a new threat vector to Taiwan’s east coast, where the geographical conformation makes it less vulnerable to ballistic missile attacks, but the marginal value that the carrier brings to the fight is probably minimal,” he said. Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB) recently confirmed China’s plans to begin sea trials of its new aircraft carrier by the end of this year. On April 26, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesperson, Col. Lo Shau-ho, said the military has been closely monitoring China’s aircraft carrier developments and had devised a strategy on how to deal with the threat, but did not go into details.
An MND source said that Taiwan’s options include land-based and ship-based Hsiung Feng (HF) anti-ship missiles and submarinelaunched torpedoes. Taiwan is still awaiting the long-delayed release of eight diesel submarines promised by the U.S. government in 2001. Upon that release, Taiwan plans to order 100 sub-launched Mk 48 Advanced Capability torpedoes.
Taiwan has two operational Dutch-built diesel submarines armed with aging German Surface and Underwater Target torpedoes. Taiwan’s anti-aircraft carrier strategy also includes the fielding of 30 new stealthy 170-ton Hai Chiao (Sea Shark) guided-missile patrol boats armed with HF-2 missiles, and has recently revealed plans to build 10 500-ton catamaran guidedmissile corvettes armed with HF-3 missiles. An MND official said Taiwan’s Navy is outfitting its Perry-class frigates with HF-3 missiles.
NSB Director Tsai Der-sheng recently told the legislature’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee that Taiwan could defend itself against a carrier threat, but there were serious questions over whether Taiwan could continue to hold the isolated Taiping Island in the South China Sea. The island is the largest of the Spratly Islands and has the longest runway in the island group.