In November 2017, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and several PRC defense industry officials made a number of claims about the next-generation of Beijing’s aircraft carriers. Currently, the PLAN operates one carrier, the CV-16 Liaoning, which was originally acquired in a partially completed state from Ukraine’s Nikolayev Shipyards.
Originally named the Varyag, this vessel had originally been built as a sister ship to the Russian Navy’s (VMF) single carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. The Ukrainian-built ship could not move under its own power, so it was towed halfway around the world before undergoing years of re-fitting and the installation of a new propulsion system at the Dalian shipyards in Liaoning Province.
This ship, which has been designated the Type 001 design configuration, has completed a set of trials at sea and has also conducted takeoffs and landings with the PLAN’s only carrier-capable fighter, the Shenyang J-15. This aircraft is another in a series of reverse-engineered clones of Sukhoi design bureau-developed fighter jets, in this case it is a copy of the Su-33 that is operated on the Kuznetsov.
The aircraft’s development was partially aided by the PLAN’s acquisition of one of the early Su-27K carrier fighter prototypes from the Research Institute of Aeroelastic Systems in Feodosia, Ukraine, which is on the Crimea peninsula that was annexed and remains occupied by the Russian Federation. The aircraft was purchased along with a substantial quantity of its design materials and test data on structure and performance.
In the final years of the Varyag’s refit, the Dalian shipyards had begun building a second carrier, designated Type 001A and with the hull number CV-17. This ship will be a near-copy of the Liaoning design and will retain the same signature design characteristic of the Kuznetsov-class, which is a bow ski-ramp for the aircraft’s takeoff roll.
However, the third carrier to enter the PLAN fleet, designated the Type 002, will be a conventional flattop design and will be equipped with a catapult instead of using a ski-ramp for takeoff. But, the even more surprising statements about the newest carrier came in the summer of 2017 when PLAN Rear Admiral Yin Zhao and others said the Type 002 carrier would have an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) on board.
PLAN planners felt the inclusion of an EMALS catapult instead of the conventional steam catapult to be such a critically important part of the carrier’s configuration that the launch of the Type 002 ship was reportedly delayed in order for the new catapult system to be included in its configuration.
The limiting factor, however, is the carrier aircraft that is to be used on these carriers, the J-15. The design of the Su-33 it is based on is more than 30 years old. With a maximum takeoff weight of 33 tonnes (66,139 pounds) it is also the heaviest carrier aircraft operated anywhere in the world today. The next heaviest carrier airplane is the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet at 29.9 tonnes (65,918 lb).
A PLAN source who spoke to Chinese news outlets last November explained that the weight of the J-15 is such that even the U.S. Navy’s newest generation of C13-2 steam catapults, used on Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, would have trouble launching this aircraft effectively. Additionally, the empty weight of the Super Hornet is three tonnes lighter than that of the J-15, which means the wear and tear caused to the flight deck of any PLAN carrier is significantly more than that of U.S. Navy flattops.
These difficulties associated with the J-15’s weight have limited its effectiveness when operated off a ski-ramp flight deck and with no catapult. The aircraft has twelve hard points, but the combination of its heavy weight class and no additional takeoff energy from a catapult launch can limit it to only two CASIC YJ-83K ASMs and two PL-8 infrared-guided AAMs in some loadouts.
“There are limits to China’s J-15 as it was developed based on the Su-33, which was designed for the former Soviet navy’s Kuznetsov-class carrier, the predecessor of the Liaoning,” a source described as “close to the PLAN” told some of the same Chinese news outlets. This is seen particularly in how the aircraft cannot carry a full weapons load, but the decision to launch the carrier with a catapult raises a number of new problems.
There are plans under way to modify the nose gear of the J-15 to make it capable of being launched from a catapult. “This is possible with the proper changes to the configuration of the nose gear, as well as making some allowances for how the shock to the aircraft’s structure from the catapult launch will be channeled through the J-15’s load paths,” said a U.S.-based carrier design specialist who spoke to AIN.
The other factor is that the long-term effects and fatigue on the J-15’s structural integrity remains a significant unknown factor. “The record thus far of carrier-capable aircraft being operated in ways other than what they were designed for is one in which unhappy surprises end up appearing after a significant accumulation of flight hours,” said the same U.S. carrier design specialist. “Aircraft will begin showing cracks and other evidence that the airframe has been overstressed.”
A Potential Solution
The potential long-term answer to the problem exists in the form of the Shenyang FC-31 fighter. Design concepts of a carrier-capable version of the aircraft have been seen on Chinese outlets. However, the design of the land-based version has not been defined yet, and there remain questions about an engine that could provide enough power for the aircraft.
The Russian-made Klimov/Sarkisov RD-93 engines that were used in the initial FC-31 prototypes leave the aircraft underpowered. Moreover, the latest “ver 2.0” prototype is three tonnes heavier than the original design, making the issue of which engine and when it will be available an even bigger question mark.
Beyond these questions is the ability of the Shenyang design team to modify the aircraft with a wingfold to accommodate carrier ops and countless other changes required to make the design ready for sea-borne operations still remain. The J-15 could be the only aircraft operating off of the PLAN’s carriers for some time into the future.
The combination of a new generation of carriers, attempting to introduce EMALS technology and the adaptation of the FC-31 for carrier operations is an ambitious set of activities, said a former DoD official who spoke to AIN. “They will collectively be a “resource-intensive set of activities that are likely to consume more and make a bigger dent in the Chinese military budget than they have anticipated,” he said.