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What to Expect From China’s Upcoming Carrier Air Wings: Attack Drones, Stealth Fighters, Flankers, AWACS and More

hile China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy inducted its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, into service in 2012, the warship’s air wing was somewhat modest by comparison to those of more established naval powers. The Liaoning was based on the Russiαn Kuznetsov Class design, and at almost 70,000 tons it deployed under three dozen fighters alongside rotary wing support platforms for transport, airborne early warning and anti submarine warfare roles.

The warship’s lack of a catapult launch system however meant that it was limited in the weight of the fixed wing aircraft it could deploy – meaning supporting platforms such as AWACS or more heavily armed longer ranged fighters could not be accommodated. The Liaoning was initially classified as a training carrier, and while its J-15 Flying Shark fighters were based on the highly formidable airframe of the J-11B they could not make use of their long ranges, large missile payloads or high altitude ceilings due to limitations on their takeoff weights.

As the PLA Navy moves to induct more capable carriers, particularly the larger Type 002 and Type 003 Class ships which will follow on from the currently serving Liaoning and Shandong carriers and deploy electromagnetic catapult launch systems, its carrier air wings are set to grow considerably more diverse and capable. As assessment of the composition of these air wings gives a strong indication of the future combat potential of the PLA Navy. The Navy’s ability to effectively close the gap with and even surpass the United States in the capabilities of its surface combat vessels in the latter half of the 2010s, deploying state of the art assets such as Type 052D and Type 055 Class destroyers and YJ-18, YJ-100 and YJ-XX long ranged anti ship cruise missiles among others, makes deployment of new and more capable carrier air wings a highly auspicious event for China which will complement existing advantages held by the PLA fleet.

Chinese Carrier Liaoning with J-15 Flying Shark Fighters

The J-15 Flying Shark air superiority fighters in their current form are set to be replaced by considerably more capable fighters. A new and more advanced variant of the Flying Shark, termed J-15B, will integrate next generation technologies comparable to those on the J-11B. These will include new and more powerful engines, three dimensional thrust vectoring capabilities, new electronic warfare systems and avionics, a powerful active electronically scanned array radar, new long ranged PL-15 air to air missiles, a radar cross section reducing fuselage, stealth coatings and greater use of composite materials for a lighter but stronger frame. This new next generation Flying Shark will represent one of the most capable carrier based fighters in the world, one highly lethal in an air superiority role, which will fully benefit from next generation technologies and from the catapult launch systems installed on the new carriers. Multiple unverified reports indicate that these fighters took their first flights before 2019, if not that they are already operational from naval bases and flown by the Navy’s pilots, although an official unveiling is unlike until the first EMALS equipped carrier is commissioned.

J-15 Flying Shark Heavyweight Air Superiority Fighter

It is expected that the J-15 will be complemented by a lighter and less specialised fighter, likely based on the Shenyang J-31 stealth jet, which will deploy a wide array of munitions for both strike and maritime strike roles. The aircraft will play a similar complementary role alongside the J-15 that the U.S. Navy’s F-35C is expected to alongside the upcoming Air Dominance Fighter air superiority platform. The synergy between the capabilities of the two complementary fighters will provide Chinese carrier air wings with a considerably greater capability than those which field a single unspecialised fighter class – placing them on par only with the United States Navy. Like the U.S. Navy, China’s carrier air wings will also deploy a third class of manned combat aircraft – an electronic attack jet based on the airframe of the J-15 speculated to be named J-15D or J-17. The platform will carry heavy electronic warfare equipment to disrupt enemy operations and defences – a vital complement to the air wing to which only the U.S. has an analogue in the form of the EA-18G Growler.

J-15D/ J-17 Carrier Based Electronic Attack Jet Prototype

Serving as a vital force multiplier for carrier Chinese air wings, China has become the first country other than the United States to develop a carrier based airborne early warning and control (AWACS) aircraft. While the U.S. and French navies currently deploy the Grumman E-2 Hawkeye from their own catapult equipped carriers, the PLA Navy is set to deploy the KJ-600 as its own analogue. AWACS support provides fighter units with considerable advantages over those which lack such support, and the aircraft’s powerful radar provides excellent situational awareness and the ability to both detect and track large numbers of fighters simultaneously at range. The aircraft can direct fighter units, provide targeting information and even guide their missiles towards faraway targets.

GJ-11 Stealth Drone

Another class of combat aircraft set to be deployed by upcoming Chinese carriers will be unmanned – likely stealth drones based on the GJ-11 design. These will provide a more expendable long range strike capability – one which can effectively complement the two fighter classes and the electronic attack jet. It remains a considerable possibility that multiple classes of combat drone will be deployed, and stealth platforms designed for surveillance could provide a valuable capability. This combination of assets will make China carrier air wings uniquely potent, far moreso than those currently in service, which with current upgrades to the U.S. Navy’s carrier air wings will place the two in a league of their own leaving Russiαn, British, European and other carriers far behind.