TAIPEI — Just one month after China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was commissioned, photographs are appearing on the Internet of the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark fighter jet operating over the ship.
The photographs have appeared on Chinese-language military blogs and government-run newspapers. The images show the J-15 flying just above the carrier deck, along with a photograph of a Changhe Z-8 search-and-rescue helicopter taking off from the deck.
“The latest imagery shows that China is continuing to progress toward a genuine carrier capacity, possibly with an initial operation capability around the middle of this decade,” said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, U.K.
“Imagery of a prototype of the Shenyang J-15 show the aircraft being flown on practice final approaches and over-flying the deck, likely as part of the initial trials for carrier operation,” he said.
The J-15 is modeled on the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-based fighter and is being developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Corp. China obtained a prototype Su-33 (T-10K-7) from Ukraine, said a new report by the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, “Shooting Star: China’s Military Machine in the 21st Century.” In 2009, China built the first prototype of the J-15 and outfitted it with the Shenyang WS-10A turbofan engine.
Though the photographs are surprising, none of the photos of the plane show a tailhook deployed, and all show the plane in the air behind the carrier’s ski jump, “so it clearly had not done a takeoff from the ship,” and “more likely a touch-and-go or fly-by,” said Roger Cliff, a China defense specialist for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Cliff said it will be several years before China has a carrier with a fully operational air wing, “although that is in part because they probably don’t have enough carrier-capable aircraft right now, and in part because the Liaoning isn’t big enough for a full wing of aircraft.”
When China begins carrying out flight operations at maximum operating tempo, launching and landing aircraft has to be a carefully choreographed operation, he said.
“If you want to get all your combat aircraft in the air at the same time, you have to be able to bring them up from the hangar deck and launch them in rapid succession,” Cliff said. “Otherwise, the first planes to take off will have burned through half their fuel by the time the last aircraft takes off. When the mission is complete, you have to be able to recover them one by one and get them out of the way before the last one runs out of gas.”
Then comes the demands of required maintenance, refueling and rearming the planes as quickly as possible, and “then things get really complicated if you are trying to launch and recover at the same time,” he said. “The less efficiently you do all this, the fewer sorties you generate, and the less effective combat power the carrier has. I’m sure they will master all that in time, though.”