China’s Navy has undergone a period of rapid expansion in recent years. With more than twenty new vessels launched in the past 24 months, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) seems intent on first dominating the South China Sea and eventually, making the transition toward a globally capable blue water navy. Nowhere is that push more prevalent than among their growing fleet of aircraft carriers. Until recently, the only carrier in China’s stable was the Soviet-hulled Liaoning, but with their first domestically produced carrier, the Type-001, currently undergoing sea trials and two more already in production, China is about to have a formidable carrier presence in the region … there’s just one problem: their carrier aircraft are increasingly unreliable.
While two incidents involving China’s J-15 fighter going down have been reported in state media (one resulted in a pilot’s death and another in serious injury), Chinese officials recently indicated that at least two more incidents have occurred in recent years that were not released. There are no details pertaining to these other incidents to speak of, which demonstrates a significant difference between the media in nations like the United States (where we actively debate about its legitimacy as it pertains to politics) and in China, where the administration simply decides what can and can’t be covered.
Even if the J-15 had proved to be a capable fourth-generation fighter, the nation would still face two significant issues with fielding them on their fleet of carriers: the first being that they currently have only a few dozen or so of the jets, and with each new carrier designed to house up to forty aircraft, they need to produce a number of new planes just to have enough for the two carriers they already have. The second issue is somewhat unique to our modern day in age, where developed national militaries are making the transition toward fifth-generation fighters that are designed from the ground up with supersonic cruising and stealth technology in mind. Ramping up production on old-style J-15s, which are little more than modified copies of the thirty-year-old Russian Su-33, would mean allocating significant resources to fielding new outdated platforms – a strategic blunder as China re-organizes its military with its sights set on countering America’s presence in the Pacific.
That line of thinking almost certainly led to last week’s announcement that China is pursuing the development of a new carrier-based aircraft. Officials offered no further details to pull from, but the operating assumption is that China’s carriers of the future will likely be equipped with their forthcoming FC-31, or J-31, both different names associated with the same fighter program that is based on stolen plans for America’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. America and some allies intend to field F-35Cs aboard their own carriers, making China’s new jet a logical choice for their own carrier force.
Like comparisons between the J-20 and the aircraft it copies, America’s F-22, the F-35, and J-31 are widely considered to be set apart by capability levels. The F-35 boasts more advanced stealth technology and the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds without engaging its afterburners, something China’s fifth-generation J-20 still fails to do. However, it can be expected that China’s engine woes will be worked out before the first J-31s make their way onto their carriers.
China, aware that the J-31 may not be a direct match for the F-35, have already claimed that their foreign sales of the aircraft will ring in at significantly cheaper than America’s flagship fighter, making it a competitor on the open market with Russia’s Su-57 among nations that don’t have friendly enough relations with the U.S. to make it onto the F-35 buyer’s list.
While it’s possible that China may look to convert an existing land-launched fourth generation fighter to carrier duty, such as the J-16, it still seems unlikely that they’d invest heavily in a transition program aimed at fielding dated airframes that lack a strong supply chain — especially as the United States upgrades their existing fleet of fourth generation fighters into platforms that may serve as a real competitor for weaker fifth generation aircraft like China’s or Russia’s. The Block III Super Hornets will be better equipped than most other fourth generation aircraft on the planet, and already exist in abundant numbers, so if China aims to compete regarding blue-water navy building, an old plane likely just won’t do.
Unless there’s an entirely new aircraft in the pipeline (which seems unlikely) China will probably soon announce plans to put their J-31s out to sea, and with their eyes set on the export market and high production capabilities, that means the airborne battles of the future may look like F-35s from various nations engaging with F-35 copies from various others.
Featured image: J-31 at Zhuhai. | By 天剣2 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons