Reducing aero engine technology reliance on Russia, China appears to have fitted its indigenously developed turbofan engines onto its carrier-based fighter jets, according to reports.
In released footage via the Chinese-owned media last week, the J-15 Flying Shark was spotted with what seemed to be the latest variant of its domestically made Shenyang Liming WS-10 Taihang engine on its rear view.
This could be another major surprise 😮
The PLAN Naval Aviation converted at least one J-15 to WS-10B engines replacing the standard Russian AL-31F, so after only a few prototypes tested it in the early phase, this is eventually a hint that the WS-10 is ready for the J-15 too. pic.twitter.com/sTwdVnQU2k
— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) November 23, 2022
According to the assessment done by Janes, the newest feature could be a ‘B’ variant with a more powerful capability than the WS-10A. With little to no formally released information on the Chinese aircraft, experts could only speculate based on the available data on the development timeline and what the potential installation of the WS-10 engine meant for the future of the J-15s. Some analysts pointed out the impressive maturity of the indigenous powerplant if it is indeed being integrated from initially intended land-based aircraft to carrier-based platforms.
The J-15 is an all-weather, twinjet, carrier-based fourth-generation multirole fighter aircraft developed by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation and 601 Institute based on the former Soviet Union Su-33 Flanker for the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force. It is also the last known aircraft to utilize the AL-31F Russian powerplant still, as most of the Chinese fleet has already received domestically-made engines.
The WS-10 Taihang is “a series of turbofan engines with high thrust and high thrust-to-weight ratio independently developed by China,” based on the experiment experience from the abandoned 1980s Woshan WS-6 turbofan project. A Chinese military aviation expert further told Global Times that several Chinese warplanes have already fitted with Taihang engines, including the J-10, J-11, J-16, and J-20 fighter jets. Given the high demand for carrier-based aircraft, the WS-10 was not equipped in the J-15s until today, indicating China’s remarkable progress in aero-engine development—becoming a more mature, safe, reliable, and better engine than the original AL-31F, the expert added.
“This is because carrier operation is very demanding, as it requires the engines to have a higher acceleration rate and withstand stronger impact during takeoff and landing, as well as face harsher working environments, including high saline and high humidity, which could cause corrosion and negatively affect the engine’s reliability and lifespan,” said Fu Qianshao, a Chinese military aviation expert.
Fu also noted how the latest WS-10 engine could likely be at the same level or even slightly better than its US counterpart. In 2009, the Chinese powerplant was advertised as having a thrust of 120-140 kN (27,000-31,000 lbf). As of this writing, there needs to be more information on its most recent thrust power which may or may not have increased.
The latest development on the progress of the WS-10 powerplant also signifies Beijing’s less reliance on export parts, particularly with Russian-made AF-31F engines, which were reportedly reluctant to supply the component.
Air Dominance Remains Under the US Belt
Despite the remarkable progress of its superpower counterpart, the US continues to reign the skies with its powerful fleet. The Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, a twin-engine, carrier-capable, multirole fighter jet used by the US Navy, is likely to be a close competitor of the J-15.
Originally designed by McDonnell Douglas, the Super Hornet entered service in early 1997 and has since dominated the skies, capable of launching air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles. Through the years, two variants spewed, creating the F/A-18E single-seat and F/A-18F tandem-seat—both apt to conduct every mission in the tactical spectrum. It is fitted with two General Electric F414-GE-400 turbofans, each proven to generate up to 58 kN (13,000 lbf) thrust dry and 98 kN (22,000 lbf) with an afterburner, capable of reaching a maximum speed of Mach 1.6.
The Super Hornet continues to serve as the reliable backbone of the US Navy and other nations operating the venerable aircraft, including Australia, Canada, Malaysia, and Kuwait, to name a few.
Meanwhile, the US Navy has an ongoing, under-development aircraft carrier-based unmanned aircraft vehicle called the Boeing MQ-25 Stingray, which is expected to fill an important role as an aerial refueling drone. The idea emerged in 2006 under the Unmanned Carrier-launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program, which later grew into the Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) program.
Under the CBARS program, the crewless aircraft’s primary purpose is to serve as a carrier-based aerial refueling tanker the same size as the Super Hornet. Nonetheless, a future variant of the UAV also includes intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, communication relay, and strike capabilities. It is powered by one Rolls-Royce AE 3007N turbofan engine that generates up to 44kN (10,000 lbf) of thrust, the same engine variant the US Navy’s MQ-4C Triton is using.