China’s first indigenous aircraft carriers are currently undergoing sea trials and are getting a good amount of international buzz. There is one crucial thing to remember about these large, powerful vessels, however. Their primary weapon, for both offensive and defensive operations, is the aircraft they carry on board. Building the carriers is just half of the answer to the question of naval dominance.
And while things might be going well at sea, according to a report by the South China Morning Post, the Chinese are having a problem — or, more accurately, a lot of problems — in the sky, specifically with the Shenyang J-15 Flanker. This aircraft isn’t quite original, it’s a copy of the Su-33, a plane that Russia is currently phasing out in favor of a modified MiG-29.
So far, there have been four crashes involving the J-15. At least two pilots have been killed trying to save planes that have suffered serious mechanical failures in flight. A third pilot was badly injured, taking over a year to recover.
The J-15 is a Chinese copy of the Su-33 Flanker.
(Photo by Dimitri Tarakhov)
So, what’s China to do? Currently, there are plans to replace the J-15 with a version of the J-31, a Chinese fifth-generation fighter that’s currently in development. The J-31 made its first flight in 2012. The US struggled to get a true fifth-generation fighter in the air — there was more than a decade-long gap between the F-35’s first flight and introduction to service. While there’s no guarantee than the Chinese will run into the same delays the US, it does look as though they’re at risk of fielding aircraft carriers well before their primary armaments are ready.
A model of the J-15.
(Photo by Nacht Eule)
Communist China currently has one carrier, the Liaoning, a Russian Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier (and we know the track record of the Kuznetsov), in service. A refined copy of that carrier, known as the Type 001A, is China’s first home-built carrier. Meanwhile, the Chinese are also developing two new carrier classes, the Type 002 and Type 003. The former is said to be a conventionally-powered design in the 85,000-ton range while the latter is reported to be a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
The Chinese are turning to the J-31 to replace the J-15.
(Photo by wc)
Of course, the effectiveness of these carriers will depend on whether the Chinese Communists can get workable planes. Otherwise, the carriers will be practically useless.
In October of 1944, a shortage of planes led Japan to use their carriers as decoys at Leyte Gulf. Unless the Chinese get to manufacturing solid aircraft for their carriers, they might find themselves in the same boat.