The J-15 fighters on the deck of the Liaoning carrier. Photo: Xinhua
The J-15 fighters on the deck of the Liaoning carrier. Photo: Xinhua

China’s one commissioned aircraft carrier and its second one doing seat trials at the moment face one serious problem – finding enough combat aircraft to take off from them.

China’s aircraft carrier-borne J-15 is a fourth generation, twin-jet, all-weather fighter developed by the Aviation Industry Corp of China. It took to the skies from the Liaoning’s ski-jump-like bow for the first time in 2012.

Yet it appears that since then, the J-15’s production and deployment have been hovering around low levels: the People’s Liberation Army only had about 40 of these fighters in active service as of last year, according to the PLA Daily.

To put that number in perspective, the Liaoning needs 24 J-15s to form a combat-ready fighter squadron and her sister ship, the Type 001A carrier now getting ready to be commissioned, will also need the same amount of J-15s when it eventually sets sail as a combat-ready member of the fleet.

The J-15 was copied, with AVIC and PLA technicians spending years reverse engineering the design of an unfinished Su-33 prototype acquired from Ukraine in the early 2000s. But the fighter was also fitted with domestically produced radar, engines and weapons.

The J-15 is now the PLA’s only fighter series capable of taking off and landing on the force’s carriers. Photos: Xinhua

The J-15 is hardly a game changer – its reliance on ski-jump launches and lack of carrier-based refueling capabilities means it is never a fully-fledged long-range fighter.

Chinese media outlets including news portal Sina have also been taking potshots at the J-15’s other incapabilities, noting that the fighter is nothing more than a “flopping fish” unable to fly high from the Liaoning when carrying heavy weapons exceeding 12 tons.

The J-15 is one of the heaviest carrier-borne fighters in operation across global navies, with an empty weight of 17.5 tons compared with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet’s 14.6 tons.

And the J-15’s weight problems are further compounded when operating off the Liaoning, as the carrier’s antiquated short take-off but arrested recovery system further limits the J-15’s payload capacity.

One J-15 crashed during a land-based carrier landing test in April 2016 due to flight control system failures, and a pilot sustained grave injuries and later died as he tried to regain control of the aircraft and only ejected at the last minute.

In July, senior PLA officials confirmed that development and tests are in the works for a new carrier-based, catapult-capable fighter family to replace the J-15 to match the more advanced Chinese flattops in the future.

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