- Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images
- There are rumors and reports from China that it may eventually deploy its fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighters aboard its next-generation aircraft carriers.
- China has one operational carrier and another that is expected to enter service this year. While both of these ships are dated, China is believed to be working on a third, more modern flattop similar to those used by the US and France.
- Experts told Insider that the increase in capability could eventually give Chinese carriers the ability to “fight US carriers in blue water.”
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China appears to be considering arming a future aircraft carrier with the country’s first fifth-generation stealth fighter, a move that will seriously boost the Chinese navy’s combat power if it can overcome the relevant hurdles in the coming decade or so.
The Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter is expected to replace the Shenyang J-15 on future Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy flattops, the South China Morning Post reported Tuesday, citing an anonymous military insider who revealed that the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation is working on a “new version of their J-20” for carrier launches and landings. This bears similarities to the US’s fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter, which has a variant built for carrier decks.
The SCMP report follows another from earlier this year in which the Global Times, citing Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, revealed that China is developing a two-seat J-20 variant that could be developed into a bomber, electronic warfare aircraft or even a carrier-based fighter.
Another aircraft, the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation’s FC-31 was expected to become China’s next carrier-based fighter jet, but SCMP reports the Central Military Commission, the decision-making body for the country’s military, wants the J-20 instead.
The J-20 is a larger, heavier aircraft than the FC-31 and is said to be more maneuverable but not as reliable. The J-20, which is currently in service with the air force, is a 35-ton fighter with a top speed of Mach 2 and an estimated combat range of 1,200 to 2,000 miles, The National Interest notes. The J-20 also carries a heavy collection of weaponry.
Even if China is able to build a modern carrier, it could take years to effectively integrate the J-20 onto it and deploy it with squadrons of trained pilots. For comparison, the US military has decades of experience with both carriers and advanced fighter aircraft, but it is struggling with its next-generation carriers and has yet to integrate the F-35 onto Navy carriers.
The Shenyang Aircraft Corporation is responsible for the J-15 fighters currently in service aboard the Liaoning, a Chinese warship that began as a discarded hull of an unfinished Soviet heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser but was purchased, refitted, and transformed into China’s first flattop.
The J-15 will likely continue to serve aboard China’s first indigenously-produced carrier, a still unnamed vessel similar to its predecessor.
The J-20 could put China’s future carriers on near equal footing with the US.
But China has a third carrier in the works, a ship that the Pentagon expects to be a more modern flattop. The Department of Defense revealed in its most recent report to Congress on China’s military developments that the next aircraft carrier “will likely be larger and fitted with a catapult launch system,” a more sophisticated alternative to the ski jumps on the first and second carriers.
A catapult launch system would give China the ability to field an aircraft like the J-20, which Matthew Funaiole, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “would certainly represent an upgrade over the J-15” due to its advanced avionics, sensors, and stealth.
The introduction of catapult aircraft launch systems on Chinese carriers “will be a huge step forward for China,” Funaiole previously told Insider, explaining that this “would put China in a very elite status” because it would rapidly close the technology gap and do “something that very few countries can do.”
Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley wrote earlier this year that China is presently “on the verge of fielding some of the most modern weapon systems in the world.”
Another step forward for the Chinese military would be fielding advanced fighter aircraft on its future flattops.
“The J-20 would dramatically improve the capability of PLAN carriers,” Bryan Clark, a defense expert and former US Navy officer, told Insider, adding that “the J-20 may enable the PLA to use its future carriers for operations against U.S. carriers and naval forces.”
The current generation of Chinese carriers can only carry about a third of what US Navy carriers can, and the J-15s are inferior to US F/A-18 Super Hornets.
“The upcoming PLAN carriers may be able to carry as many aircraft as US carriers and will use catapults,” Clark explained. “With an aircraft like the J-20, the PLAN could eventually fight U.S carriers in blue water.”
China has big plans, but is likely to face big challenges.
- Photo by Chen Xiao/Aerospace Knowledge/Visual China Group via Getty Images
The US, of course, has an advantage given its decades of experience with aircraft carrier operations and warfare, and the US Navy is starting to field its own next-generation carriers that will – together with the Nimitz-class carriers -eventually carry the F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, a fifth-generation fighter generally considered to be superior to the J-20.
Fielding J-20s aboard modern carriers, assuming China actually intends to do so, would certainly be a step toward power parity for China, a country the Pentagon now considers its “number one priority” and the greatest long-term threat to American interests.
It is unclear if China will ultimately follow through with the reported plans for the J-20 or when it could even do so if it wanted to. There are hurdles China will have to overcome to achieve these ends, assuming it desires to do so.
“Having not been designed for carrier operations, as far as I’m aware, the J-20 would need extensive structural strengthening, new undercarriage and navalisation before being suitable for carrier operations,” Justin Bronk, an air combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute, told Insider. However, he explained, the aircraft does have certain useful features that would be “a starting point for carrier conversion should Beijing chose to go that route.”
Funaiole noted that the J-20 has a “somewhat modular” design that could make the development of new variants a little easier, but the technical challenges are not the only obstacles to fielding this technology.
“It is a new aircraft, so there are still a lot of questions to be answered regarding how and when it will be integrated in the PLAN, especially when it comes to areas things like mid-air refueling,” he said, adding that China might also “experience some difficulty if it rolls out a new J-20 variant the same time it launches its new aircraft carrier, which is also a new design.”
While there is uncertainty about China’s path forward, there is mounting evidence that China has big plans to step up its aircraft carrier game.