Rumours of the J-15’s unreliability have been greatly exaggerated

As the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s first ever carrier borne fighter, the J-15 Fei Sha (Flying Shark) has been the focus of substantial English language and foreign media coverage since its maiden flight in August 2009. On cursory review of various Chinese fighter types, perhaps only the J-20 and FC-31 stealth fighters have received more foreign interest (and prompted a greater word count) than the J-15.

Some of the reporting on the J-15 could be described as controversial, or somewhat misinformed. However, this is not unreasonable, given the history and technical characteristics of the aircraft, as well as the J-15’s somewhat unique role in the context of overall PLAN carrier development efforts as the Chinese navy’s first carrier borne fighter in general.

As an aircraft derived from a Ukrainian T-10K prototype, which formed the basis of the Soviet Su-33, the J-15 inherits the same airframe and aerodynamic configuration as the Su-33, though the original T-10K prototype was so fatigued that many key subsystems required development from scratch. The J-15 in its current production form retains the same ski jump assisted short take off (STOBAR) mechanism to enable carrier launch. The current variant of the J-15 has seen a relatively small production by Chinese standards, with only 24 airframes produced between 2014 and 2018. Production of the same baseline variant restarted in late 2019, with a minimum of 10 further airframes confirmed at this point in time.

This piece will review some of the most common claims surrounding the J-15, specifically the payload and take-off weight of the aircraft, as well as consider the accident rate in context of the aircraft’s operational status and design. I’ll also judge the comparative capability of the aircraft in relation to its PLA and worldwide peers, and review aircraft variants and future prospects of the type in context of PLAN carrier development.

MTOW And Payload

As mentioned, the J-15 takes off from carriers using a ski jump assisted STOBAR mechanism rather than catapult assistance (CATOBAR). The Chinese navy’s current in-service carriers, CV-16 Liaoning (previously the Varyag) and CV-17 Shandong, both field ski jumps and the PLAN will not have a CATOBAR carrier in service until 003 is projected to enter service around 2025 or afterwards. The procurement of the ex-Varyag from Ukraine to be China’s first carrier, combined with the projected development time to achieve a mature catapult system (whether steam or electromagnetic, EM), effectively placed the PLAN on a path to adopt STOBAR aircraft carriers from the outset if it sought a carrier in the 2010s.

One of the most common critiques of launching tactical fighter aircraft from STOBAR are the limitations that a ski jump places on an aircraft’s take-off weight and payload. CATOBAR, by contrast, enables an aircraft to launch at maximum take-off weight (MTOW) and full payload. This oft-cited comparison is not inaccurate, but is somewhat simplified, as will be described below.

However, first it is necessary to address one of the most commonly referenced articles about the J-15, which has somehow found substantial circulation over the years. In 2013, a Taiwan-based news outlet called Want China Times (now defunct, though an archive of the original article remains available) claimed the Chinese military watching portal Sina Military Network criticized the J-15 as a “flopping fish,” for a variety of confusing reasons.

First, the J-15 was critiqued for being unable to take-off with a payload of 12 tons, but such a payload capacity was never associated with the aircraft, which has the same 6.5 ton payload as the Su-33. It was also argued that its inability to carry 12 tons meant the J-15 couldn’t be armed with the PL-12 beyond visual range missile (BVRAAM) – despite the PL-12 weighing 200 kilograms, about one-60th of the supposed requisite 12 ton capacity. The article also claimed that a J-15 fully loaded with internal fuel could only carry a two-ton payload, limiting the aircraft to two YJ-83K anti-ship missiles and two PL-8 short range missiles (SRAAMs). In actuality, two tons is sufficient to carry two YJ-83K family missiles, two PL-8 SRAAMs, and also at least two additional PL-12 missiles with pylons all inclusive. Finally, the article asserted the J-15 would somehow be limited to only “120 kilometres of attack range” – a curious claim, given that its combat radius with full internal fuel would enable a reach of over 1,200 kilometres, and the range of an air launched YJ-83K alone would reach approximately 200 kilometres to begin with.

For some peculiar reason, the article from Want China Times has been replicated in multiple other outlets over the years, including as recently as 2020. The quotations cited by various articles all find their roots in the “Sina Military Network” source, with some outlets describing it as “Beijing based” or “state media,” without any reflection as to the status of Sina, nor any assessment of the veracity (or indeed the basic arithmetic) of the claims.

As a learning opportunity, for individuals unfamiliar with PLA watching (or indeed, navigating the vast ocean of Chinese language internet portals in general): Sina, and the affiliated Sina Military Network, is a non-state media network whose functions includes aggregation of blog posts from any number of user-submitted content. The unironic citation of a random post on Sina Military Network as a credible source is the rough equivalent of citing a random post on Yahoo Answers, Quora, or Reddit as the basis of a news story. Online sourcing can be very useful if done correctly, and indeed much leading-edge PLA watching relies on an ability to accurately identify, cross-examine, and track sources and rumours over time. However, a minimum level of discipline and competency in identifying credible sources is necessary to make this work, which does not appear to have been met in this specific instance.

Returning back to the J-15, the aircraft – again, similar to the Su-33 – enjoys an MTOW of 33 tons and an external payload of 6.5 tons. Statements from credible Chinese insiders with demonstrated track records suggest that contrary to mainstream reporting, the J-15 is actually capable of taking off from the Liaoning or Shandong with full MTOW – but with preconditions.

Specifically, the MTOW of the aircraft depends on carrier speeds, which in turn generate headwinds. At an operational speed of 28 knots, the J-15 can take off from the long waist launch position at 33 tons and the two forward launch positions at 28 tons. At a slower speed of 20 knots, J-15 can take-off from the waist position at 31 tons. An inspection of Russian literature regarding the development of the Su-33 further confirms that the aircraft was indeed capable of taking off from a carrier with a full MTOW consistent with descriptions of the J-15’s take-off profiles. This should prove unsurprising given production J-15s are powered by the same Al-31 engines fielded on the original Su-33s, but would have been produced some two decades after the first Su-33 airframes, with likely benefits in materials advancement.

However, the ability to take-off from a STOBAR carrier with full MTOW does not mean the STOBAR launch mechanism is comparable or preferable to CATOBAR in terms of launch flexibility. Ski jumps require a certain level of carrier headwind for an aircraft to be launched at given requisite loads, while catapults offer substantially more flexibility for the carrier’s own navigation. Ski jumps also present more risk in the event of an engine failure during launch compared to catapults, and catapults enable the launch of other aircraft types such as airborne early warning aircraft (AEW&C) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), among others.

In short, catapults offer substantially greater safety in launching heavily loaded fighter aircraft under a variety of conditions, and are required to reliably launch other aircraft types. However, the conventional narrative that ski jumps are “unable” to launch heavily loaded fighters is also untrue. A J-15 (or indeed, a Su-33, or other STOBAR aircraft such as a MiG-29K) would indeed be capable of taking off at operationally relevant loads, including MTOW, but would face more stringent launch conditions than it would on a CATOBAR carrier.

J-15s may one day be photographed taking off from Liaoning or Shandong with a full weight payload, but given how rare it is for even land-based PLA fighter aircraft to be seen carrying full loadouts, this may or may not eventuate; indeed, such loadouts are rare for peacetime exercises. Even if such a visual was captured on film, it is likely that individuals sceptical of STOBAR may question the internal fuel load of an aircraft taking off from a ski jump with a heavy payload regardless. Therefore this is likely to remain an open question for the long term.

Unreliable… Or Not?

The performance record, specifically the reliability and the accident record of the J-15, has also come under some scrutiny in defence media over the last half decade of the aircraft’s operation.

Four supposed accidents make up this record, of which two included airframe losses, with one or two of the accidents being fatal. While the disclosure of these accidents is open knowledge, the rationale and cause as reported in some outlets do not make sense.

Specifically, claims that unreliable engines are the cause of supposed poor aircraft reliability only spark confusion, because all production J-15s thus far are powered by Al-31s, the same engines that power Russian Su-33s, and not China’s domestic WS-10 engines. Claims of irreconcilable mechanical or flight control system faults inherent to the aircraft seem inconsistent with the number of J-15 variants that were already visibly seen at the time when some of these articles were published in 2018 (at that time, the existence of test airframes for the twin seat J-15S, electronic warfare J-15D, and catapult testbed J-15T had all been confirmed), strongly suggesting PLAN confidence in the aircraft’s flight performance and viability as an airframe, especially in the context of how risk averse the PLA approach to weapons development and procurement is.

The overall implication that four accidents with two airframe losses reflect a lack of reliability also appears somewhat dubious given the context of PLA carrier operations in the 2010s.

Recall that the J-15 is the first-ever carrier capable aircraft of the PLA. It first flew in 2009, and first landed on a carrier in 2012, in the context of a navy and nation that prior to that point had no fixed-wing naval aviation experience. That is to say, not only is the individual aircraft itself new, but it represents an entirely new category of aviation for China in general. Furthermore, the 24 production airframes produced up to that point in 2018 were likely among the most intensively flown aircraft in the entire PLA’s combat aircraft fleet in that period, operating as a seed fleet to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures for the burgeoning naval aviation force and carrier doctrine, as well as flying intensively to qualify new naval aviators given the lack of dedicated carrier borne training aircraft.

In the context of such intensive flying, the lack of dedicated trainer aircraft, and the J-15’s status as an industry-first example of a fixed wing carrier borne aircraft for China, four accidents relating to the aircraft appears reasonable if not surprisingly low – especially as one of those accidents was a bird strike bearing no reflection on the aircraft itself. Certainly, assertions of the J-15 aircraft itself being somehow inherently flawed and in need of imminent replacement seem incredulous at present as of early 2021, given the variety of aforementioned J-15 test variants, as well as the restart of standard J-15 production from late 2019, and the expected production of a new CATOBAR compatible J-15 variant.