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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

China's First Carrier Flight

On November 23rd, China launched a single fixed wing aircraft from a carrier for the first time. Welcome to the club China, we've been waiting for you for over 100 years (one of the first aircraft launches from a ship at sea preformed in 1910 by the U.S Navy). Although the previous comparison is not entirely fair, it does illustrate an important point, China most recent achievement should be put into context before determining its full significance. Many news organizations cite this event as proof of China's rise to power in the Asia-Pacific region. In reality, the situation is far more complicated. 

The J-15 itself is a knock-off of the Russian Su-33, a member of the Su-27 family of aircraft. China was unable to secure an acquisition agreement with Sukhoi due to concerns of potential intellectual property violation. In lieu of buying navalized Flankers directly from Russia, the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation
 managed to acquire a Su-33 from Ukraine in either 2001 or 2005 (Global Security, 2012). From the Su-33 acquired from Ukraine, Shenyang was able to reverse engineer the aircraft and build the J-15. The Su-33 in which the J-15 is based features an antiquated set of avionics and internal systems. In fact, the Su-33 has failed gain favor with the Russian armed forces due these deficiencies. The Mig-29K will be utilized by both the Indian Navy and Russian Navy (once the retrofit of Admiral Kuznetsov is complete) instead of the Su-33 (Russian Navy Webpage, 2012).  

Image 1: J-15 carrier take off. Note the Liaoning's ski jump. (Retrieved via Danger Room, 2012)

The J-15 is limited even further by the Liaoning itself. The Liaoning features a ski ramp design rather than a steam catapult system. The advantage of the steam catapult system is assists aircraft into the air by supplementing the jets own power which allows for a greater take off weight. Although the Su-33 is theoretically capable of carrying 6,500 kg of ordinance, in practice it will not be able to carry its full combat load on its own power (Axe, 2012).

Furthermore, a complete carrier air wing consists of fighter/attack aircraft, electronic warfare aircraft, aerial refueling aircraft, submarine hunting aircraft, UAVs, and AWACS aircraft. The Chinese Navy has only begun to thoroughly test its fighter/attack aircraft, the J-15. Although the fighter/attack aircraft deliver the punch in a carrier air wing, the importance of the logistical and command and control aircraft cannot be overstated. Many nations including China have put a great emphasis on visually impressive fighter aircraft rather than the big ugly logistical and command and control assets that allow the fighter and attack aircraft to operate effectively. Without such assets, the J-15 will be a much less threatening foe.

In summary, the J-15 does not change the balance of power within the Pacific or give China a substantial advantage in a future conflict. Before the J-15 becomes a credible threat:

  1. Domestically produced avionics and aircraft systems need to be comparable to their western (or at least Russian) counterparts
  2. Support aircraft need to supplement the J-15 to form a full carrier air wing
  3. Chinese naval aviators (both flight and deck crews) need experience operating the carrier (which will take years)
  4. China will need multiple carriers (3-4) full of these aircraft, experienced crew, and systems. 
It is unlikely that all of these criteria will become a reality for at least 20 years. The Chinese Navy has taken its first steps to becoming a true carrier force but it has a long way to go. In the meantime, the United States operates eleven 100,000 ton super carriers with full carrier air wings supplemented with their strike group of submarines, destroyers, missile cruisers, and supply ships. 


(Retrieved via Danger Room, 2012)

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