Flopping Fish: The Shenyang J-15, A Perfect Example of ‘Garbage In and Garbage Out’

Shenyang J-15

There is a terminology used in the field of computing “garbage in, garbage out” meaning “incorrect or poor-quality input will produce the faulty output”. That’s what happened when China reverse-engineered Su-33 prototype T-10K-3 and produced unauthorized copies of Su-33 AKA the Shenyang J-15 (NATO reporting name: Flanker-X2).

Chinese delegates is standing in front of an unfinished Su-33 prototype, the T-10K-3, was acquired from Ukraine in 2001 and was copied to develop the J-15.

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In the early 1990s, there were many reasons why Russia didn’t adopt a deck-based Su-33 aircraft and produced only a handful of Su-33.  One of the reasons, Russia didn’t need an operational aircraft carrier. Secondly, Russia couldn’t afford to have an expensive deck-based aircraft while the Soviet Union is disintegrating into pieces. Thirdly, the Su-33 technology wasn’t mature enough to invest in deck-based aircraft.

An unfinished Su-33 prototype, the T-10K-3, was acquired from Ukraine in 2001 and brought to China for reverse engineering purpose.

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Here comes the master of reverse engineering, China’s first aircraft carrier joined the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, The Liaoning Type 001A is confronting an interesting problem: it doesn’t have enough fighter jets to fill the aircraft carrier. China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, is a Kuznetsov-class carrier like the Admiral Kuznetsov, and both use short-take-off but arrested recovery launch systems. The newly commissioned type 002 Shandon Aircraft Carrier (17; Chinese: 山东舰; pinyin: Shāndōng Jiàn), is a sister ship of the Liaoning was originally built as a “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” for the Soviet Navy, the ship was laid down as the Riga and renamed the Varyag in 1990.

Side by Side Comparison of Russian Su-33 (above) and Chinese J-15 (below).

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The Liaoning can carry 40 aircraft but operating with a short take-off and arrested recovery system instead of a catapult means that a good portion of its air forces is rotary-wing aircraft — helicopters. It only carries 26 of the PLA-N’s carrier-based Shenyang J-15 fighters. When the Type 001A, now in its second stage of sea trials, begins active patrols in the coming months, it won’t have enough J-15s to form a complete squadron: according to the PLA Daily, the service only has 40 of the jets.

When you built an aircraft carrier, you need deck-based aircraft, helicopters, escort frigates, destroyer, replenishment ships, jet fuel storage and armament, aircrew and ship complement.

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For over five years, China has been developing a carrier version of the Russian Su-27, calling it the J-15. There is already a Russian version of this, called the Su-33. Russia refused to sell Su-33s to China when it was noted that China was making illegal copies of the Su-27 (as the J-11), and did not want to place a big order for Su-33s, but only wanted two, for “evaluation.” China eventually got a Su-33 from Ukraine, which inherited some when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The prototypes of the J-15 have been under construction for two years, and the aircraft is believed to have taken only a few flights.

Priority is to have a deck-based fighter jet, “Years ago the Chinese decided to save some money and, instead of buying several Su-33s from Russia for their subsequent license production in China, they opted for a Su-33 prototype in Ukraine,” the T-10K-3, Kashin said. Sukhoi’s Su-33 began life as a modification of the older Su-27 Flanker, to be used on the Russian Navy’s own Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, a sister ship of the Liaoning with the same bow launch ramp.

“Acquiring the plane, which was no longer fit to fly, they started developing an improved copy,” Kashin said. The J-15 arose as reverse engineering of the prototype, which Task & Purpose noted brought with it all the problems of that process, including an incomplete understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the airframe. The first J-15 took to the skies in 2012.

China National Radio reported that a top-class PLA J-15 pilot died after he lost control of his plane during a simulated deck landing exercise at a unspecified inland base.

“When Zhang Chao was flying a carrier-based jet fighter in a mock landing on an aircraft carrier last year, he encountered a breakdown with the fly-by-wire flight control system,” the report said.

“At the critical moment, Zhang tried his best to save the aircraft. When the pushrods failed, he ejected and died as a result of an injury on landing.”

“The reason behind the crash of the J-15 could either be a failure in the flight control system or a problem with production quality.” Military expert Antony Wong Dong

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The J-15’s engines and heavyweight severely limit its ability to operate effectively: at 17.5 tons empty weight, it tops the scales for carrier-based fighters. The US Navy’s F-18 workhorse, by comparison, is only 14.5 tons.

Down the line, the PLAN will likely install a catapult launching system on a future carrier — leaked photos suggest that such a design is already in the works. The US Navy’s carriers have used catapults for decades, along with the French Navy’s carrier, the Charles de Gaulle. Catapults launch the plane forward quickly, with its engines already at full blast, enabling it to obtain a greater take-off speed and thus carry more armaments and fuel.

Moscow is laughing at Beijing’s J-15. China may have stolen Russian technology, but they didn’t copy it right. For the first time, in the history communist-run Chinese state media criticize J-15 being a lame duck and can’t compete with any global standard.

Though Russia and China are now friends, even holding joint exercises, Russia’s Sputnik News recently trotted out an article titled “Chinese Navy Short on Carrier-Based Fighters, Only Has Problem-Ridden J-15.” “Remember that Russian carrier-based jet that China copied without permission? Those aeroplanes are crashing, and Russia doesn’t seem too broken up about it”.

The J-15 is an unlicensed copy of Russia’s Su-33 carrier jet, which is a 1980s derivative of the Su-27K land-based fighter. China had acquired a T-10K-3, a Su-33 prototype, from Ukraine and then reverse-engineered it.

In any event, so many J-15s have crashed and burned that China is developing a new carrier jet, the J-31.

With a barely disguised touch of schadenfreude, Sputnik News delved into the woes of the J-15. “Love for the fourth-generation J-15 jet is seldom shown in Chinese circles,” said the Russian news site. “The Asia Times noted that Chinese media had disparaged the plane in numerous ways, including referring to it as a ‘flopping fish’ for its inability to operate effectively from the Chinese carriers, which launch fixed-wing aircraft under their power from an inclined ramp on the bow of the ship.

After dissecting the J-15’s flaws, Sputnik News then trotted out Russian military expert Vasily Kashin, who laughed and said This is why you shouldn’t copy other nation’s aircraft without permission.

Since 2012 the J-15, which is a copy of Sukhoi Su-33, has been the PLAN’s sole fixed-wing carrier-borne aircraft. Only 24 of these aircraft had been delivered to the PLAN in two batches before production was apparently halted in mid-2017 due to engine fires.

At least four J-15s have so far been lost and two more have been damaged, meaning that fewer than 20 of these aircraft are believed to currently be available for the PLAN’s two carriers as well as for training. The additional aircraft will most likely be used to set up a second carrier-based air wing to be assigned to Shandong.

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