Flying a high-performance jet fighter is a physically and mentally demanding skill that requires a lot of practice—but each hour flying a warplane can cost tens of thousands of dollars in fuel and maintenance expenses. That's why air forces employ lighter, easier-handling Lead-In Fighter Trainers (LIFTs) to give pilots a chance to accumulate real-life experience with supersonic flight, air combat maneuvers, and weapons launch before they take the stick of a possibly finicky high-performance jet fighter.
The thing is advanced jet trainers like South Korea’ T-50 Golden Eagle are quite capable of basic combat duties short of high-intensity conflict while costing half or a third as much as a brand new warplane. For example, Filipino FA-50s and Nigerian Alpha Jet trainers have played a major role in combating brutal insurgencies in 2017, though both were involved in tragic friendly fire incidents .
The U.S. Air Force is looking to purchase 350 new LIFT jets following its T-X competition and is evaluating several designs costing between $30 and $40 million per airframe. However, China has already been phasing into service its own very slick and speedy LIFT, costing the equivalent of only $10 to $15 million, which has attracted interest in Africa and Latin America.
Built by Hongdu in Nanchang, China, the L-15 Falcon resembles an adorably abbreviated Super Hornet or F-16. The Falcon’s two Ukrainian-built AL-222 turbofans afford the trainee and instructor a backup should one engine fail, while multi-function displays in the ‘glass cockpit’ and the hands-on-throttle-and-stick controls give trainees a chance to work with the kinds of instruments typical to fourth-generation fighters .
The Falcon' leading edge extensions on the front of its wings and a high G-load tolerance of 8.5 allow it to perform tight maneuvers and achieve high angles of attack up to 30 degrees above the vector of the plane. Quadruple-redundant fly-by-wire controls on three axes allow for precise maneuvers. These traits are used to prepare pilots for the diverse family of famously supermaneuverable twin-engine Flanker multi-role jets operated by China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force and Navy.
The L-15 prototypes first flew in March 2006 and entered service in limited numbers in 2013 as a subsonic Advanced Jet Trainer designated the JL-10. This basic model boasts six hardpoints to carry bombs, rockets and short-range air-to-air missiles, but lacks a radar to target long-range munitions.
However, Hongdu later exhibited a supersonic L-15B model with afterburning turbofans, allowing the Falcon to attain speeds of up to Mach 1.4. The L-15B also has a lengthened nose to accommodate a Passive Electronically Scanned Array radar with a reported detection range of -seven or seventy miles (sources differ) which can scan both air and surface targets ( photo here ). A Radar Warning Receiver added in the tail gives it a fighting chance to dodge missile attacks, while an IFF antenna could help avoid friendly fire incidents.
The L-15B also has its payload capacity beefed up to nearly four tons of weapons loaded on nine hardpoints: six underwing, one belly pylon and two wingtip rails. The instructor's seat can instead be used by a Weapon Systems Officer to manage guided weapons. One photo depicts an L-15 lugging 23-millimeter cannon in a belly pod, PL-5E heat-seeking air-to-air missiles (distantly related to the AA-2 and Sidewinder), LT-2 laser-guided bombs, and LS-6 GPS-guided bombs with fold-out wings that allow it to glide to targets up to thirty-seven miles away. Reportedly, more modern PL-10 and PL-12 beyond-visual-range radar-guided missiles (range sixty-two miles) could also be carried as well as other air-to-ground munitions.
The L-15B can even lug jamming pods to serve as a cut-price electronic warfare jet. However, while the jet can theoretically fly up to 52,000 feet high and over distances of up to 1,900 miles, when fully combat-loaded its effective radius is reduced to just 350 miles.
Of course, the diminutive L-15B doesn’t boast the speed, defenses, sensors and heavy payload of a full-fledged fourth-generation multi-role fighter like the F-16 or Su-35 . But for developing countries that don't expect to fight a major military power, jets like the Falcon could perform basic air defense and precision ground-attack missions, all on a platform that will be cheaper, easier to maintain, and used for training pilots.
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The Zambian Air Force so far has acquired six L-15Zs for its No. 15 squadron for $100 million, plus simulators and various guided weapons. In 2015, Venezuelan Admiral Carmen Mirandez announced plans to acquire one or two dozen L-15s to help pilots transition to Su-30MK2 and F-16 fighters. However, cash-strapped Caracas has put the deal on hold. The Uruguayan Air Force has also expressed interest in acquiring eight L-15s to replace its A-37B Dragonflies, one of which suffered an accident in 2016. Pakistan, a close ally of China, is another potential operator of the L-15B, but the jet would conflict with plans to acquire two-seat JF-17B jets, which are a Pakistani-Chinese collaboration.