China's J-20 stealth fighters will be landing only on solid ground, not aircraft carriers. Photo: Wikimedia
China's J-20 stealth fighters will be landing only on solid ground, not aircraft carriers. Photo: Wikimedia

Chinese party mouthpieces have been set into operation, playing up the might of the J-20, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s fifth-generation “air supremacy” stealth fighters. But some papers have gone a bit overboard, suggesting the planes are capable of swift deployment on the Liaoning, the PLA’s first aircraft carrier, and the second carrier that is expected to undergo sea trials shortly.

That assertion, obviously a step too far, has received some derisive reactions from professional observers at home and abroad, so much so that state broadcaster CCTV has to rectify matters.

In a program aired on its International Mandarin channel, PLA Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong, also a well-known military commentator, admitted that putting J-20 on carriers was rather “contrived”, as the fighters were never designed to be carrier-based aircraft.

“J-20’s structural design and components are all intended for use as a land-based warplane and thus its structural strength may not have been reinforced for take-off from or landing on a carrier, as in these circumstances the plane would have to withstand huge counterforce and inertia,” Zhang said.

Nor are J-20’s wings foldable, to enable it to be parked in the hangar below the carrier’s flight deck, as space is always at a premium on a sea-going airbase.

China unveils its J-20 stealth fighter during an air show in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, China, November 1, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer
The J-20 stealth fighter. Photo: Reuters/Stringer.

Unlike the F-35 Lightning IIs, J-20 may not need to be maintained in a hangar with a constant temperature and humidity, as revealed in a previous CCTV report. Yet its delicate stealth coatings may be rendered dysfunctional when exposed to an offshore environment with high salinity and high humidity.

Still, the J-15 carrier-based fighters have entered mass production after technicians for Aviation Industry Corp of China reportedly took just two months to solve technical hurdles, paving the way for the fighter’s successful arrested landing tests in November 2012, just months after the Liaoning was inaugurated.

FILE PHOTO: J-15 fighters from China's Liaoning aircraft carrier conduct a drill in an area of South China Sea, January 2, 2017. Picture taken January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Mo Xiaoliang/File Photo
A file shot taken in January shows J-15 fighters on China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier conducting a drill in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

The J-15 has twelve external hardpoints for munitions including air-to-air, anti-ship and anti-radar missiles, and can cruise at a maximum speed of 2.4 Mach (2,940 kilometers an hour) with a range of 3,500 km and maximum takeoff weight of 32.5 tons.

This year the Liaoning returned to the South China Sea after it was initially deployed in the western Pacific. The carrier conducted a series of take-off and landing drills with its J-15 fighters, following a fatal accident in 2016 in which a J-15 crashed during a simulated carrier landing.

Analysts say the J-15 is almost on par with the US Navy’s Grumman F-14 Tomcat supersonic, twin-engine fighter aircraft. The Tomcat was retired from service in September 2006, having been supplanted by the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

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