China is developing a new fighter jet for aircraft carriers to replace its J-15s after a series of mechanical failures and crashes, as it tries to build up a blue-water navy that can operate globally, military experts and sources said.
The J-15 was based on a prototype of the fourth-generation Russian Sukhoi Su-33 twin-engined air superiority fighter, a design that is more than 30 years old. It was developed by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, a unit of state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China.
With a maximum take-off weight of 33 tonnes, the aircraft is the heaviest active carrier-based fighter jet in the world, used on China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
China needs to develop the new fighter jet as it plans to create at least four aircraft carrier groups to fulfil its global navy ambitions and defend its growing overseas interests, Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.
“In order to improve the combat effectiveness of the Chinese aircraft carrier strike groups, it is necessary to develop a new carrier-based fighter,” Li said, adding that the FC-31 stealth fighter could be used as a model to replace the J-15.
China’s FC-31 is a newer generation stealth fighter that made its first flight in 2012, and is smaller and lighter than the J-15.
Lieutenant General Zhang Honghe, deputy head of the PLA Air Force, also told the South China Morning Post that a “new carrier-based fighter to replace the J-15” was being developed.Meanwhile, a new aircraft carrier is being built by the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. The Type 002 will use an electromagnetic launch system that would mean less wear and tear on the aircraft and allow more planes to be launched in a shorter time than the ski-jump systems used on the Liaoning and China’s first home-grown carrier, the Type 001A, which is at the sea trial stage.
The need to develop a new fighter jet has become more pressing after a series of “unpardonable mechanical failures” that have killed one top PLA pilot and injured another.
Two sources close to the military told the Post there had been at least four crashes involving the J-15, although only two of them have been reported by state media.
“The J-15 is a problematic aircraft – its unstable flight control system was the key factor behind the two fatal accidents two years ago,” one of the sources said.
Pilot Zhang Chao, 29, died in a crash in April 2016 as he tried to save his J-15 fighter jet, whose flight control system was breaking down during a mock landing on an aircraft carrier, according to state media reports.
Three weeks later, his colleague Cao Xianjian, believed to be in his 40s, was seriously injured as he tried to deal with the same problem on a J-15. It took him more than a year to recover.
All J-15s were grounded for three months after the crashes, which undermined morale in the air force and navy. The navy called for an investigation after Zhang’s death, the sources said.
“But the aviation experts at first refused to acknowledge that the J-15 has design problems,” one of the sources said. “They only agreed there were problems after Cao encountered the same trouble.”
Many of China’s home-grown fighter jets have had problems with their engines, aircraft design and modifications. But a PLA Navy veteran said that instead of carrying out more test flights, pilots were pushed to fly the warplanes, even though they had faults.
“Of course it’s impossible to prevent any accident from ever happening during training. But unlike their counterparts in Western countries, Chinese air force pilots are asked to work around these mechanical errors,” the navy veteran said.
Although pilots are taught to eject from their fighter jets in the event of a mechanical failure, they are also told they have a duty to “save the valuable aircraft”.
“PLA Air Force pilots are trained that it’s their mission to save the aircraft, which is state property … but this needs to change because human lives are priceless,” the veteran said. “Aircraft can be rebuilt after a crash, but pilots are irreplaceable.”
Earlier this year, state broadcaster CCTV aired a propaganda programme praising Zhang and Cao for trying to save their jets as they were going down.
Last week, Zhang was given a posthumous award for being “best party member”, while Cao was elected as the People’s Liberation Army representative at the Communist Party congress in October.