Here's What You Need to Remember: The Chinese navy could possess as many as six aircraft carriers by the mid-2030s, experts told state media. As many as four could have catapults.
The Chinese military reportedly has decided to develop the air force’s J-20 stealth fighter into a sea-based variant to fly from the navy’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers.
The Central Military Commission, the People’s Liberation Army’s top decision-making body, favors the J-20 over the smaller FC-31 stealth fighter design, according to the Hong Kong South China Morning Post.
The Chengdu Aerospace Corporation, which builds the J-20 for the air force, “will announce some new products, which will include a new version of their J-20,” an unnamed source told the newspaper. “You can guess what type it will be.”
As part of future Chinese carrier air wings, the J-20 most likely would perform beyond-visual-range air-superiority missions, firing heavy air-to-air missiles at distant targets much like the U.S. Navy’s now-retired F-14 fighter would have done.
The J-20 also could function as long-range strike aircraft, again like the F-14 did during the twilight of its four-decade career ending in 2006.
“Operating from a carrier would certainly enable the J-20 to better perform what many analysts envision to be its two primary missions, long-range strike and long-range air superiority,” Robert Farley wrote at The Diplomat.
“Using the PL-15 [beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile], a carrier battle group with J-20s could push U.S. tanker and early warning aircraft deep into the Pacific, as well as threaten installations such as Guam,” Farley added. “Of course, any [Chinese navy] carrier leaving the friendly confines of the first island chain [beyond Japan and The Philippines] would become extraordinarily vulnerable to attacks from U.S. submarines and aircraft.”
Selecting the J-20 “will mark the end of a lengthy debate between its supporters and advocates of the FC-31 as to which would make a better carrier-based fighter,” South China Morning Post reported. “Those who favored the J-20 said it was more advanced and reliable than the FC-31, but its supporters said it was more light and nimble.”
“Both the J-20 and FC-31 have their advantages,” Song Zhongping, a military commentator for Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, told the Hong Kong newspaper. “The size of the J-20 is similar to the J-15 since both are powerful heavy fighters.”
According to Farley, Chinese planners also worry about the cost of developing a second stealth fighter in addition to the J-20. “An economic downturn will starve the service of resources,” Farley pointed out.
A carrier-based J-20 partially would replace the J-15, China’s first carrier fighter.
The J-15 is a clone of Russia's Su-33 naval fighter. Outwardly, the fighter has a lot in common with U.S., French and British carrier planes. "The J-15 has folding wings, strengthened landing gear, a tailhook under a shortened tail stinger, two-piece slotted flaps, canards and a retractable inflight-refueling probe on the left side of the nose," the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency explained in a January 2019 report.
The non-stealthy J-15 weighs 17 tons while empty and can launch via the ramp on the bow of China’s first two carriers, which lack catapults. But the ramp-launch method limits the J-15 to around 30 tons maximum weight, translating into a modest weapons load. The J-15 reportedly also is unreliable and accident-prone.
The J-20 weighs 21 tons without fuel and weapons and up to 40 tons with them.
“The J-20 would be big for a carrier-based fighter, but certainly not the largest that has ever flown,” Farley wrote. “The Grumman F-14 had a slightly higher take-off weight, although it was a bit shorter. The A-5 Vigilante, which operated from U.S. carriers in the 1960s, was slightly longer but somewhat lighter.”
The Chinese stealth fighter likely will require a catapult for launch from a carrier. The U.S. Navy's own carriers use steam catapults to launch aircraft weighing as much as 50 tons. The Chinese navy could commission its first catapult-equipped aircraft carrier in 2022, according to the May 2019 edition of the U.S. Defense Department’s annual report on Chinese military developments.
“China began construction of its second domestically built aircraft carrier in 2018, which will likely be larger and fitted with a catapult launch system,” the DIA noted. “This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations. China’s second domestically built carrier is projected to be operational by 2022.”
The older flattops Liaoning and Shandong should remain useful even after the second domestic carrier -- China’s third flattop -- enters service. "Though Liaoning has substantially less capability than a U.S. Navy carrier, it provides extended air-defense coverage for at-sea task groups and is being used to develop further China’s carrier pilots, deck crews and tactics," the Pentagon noted in the 2018 edition of its annual report on the Chinese military.
Still, China's first two flattops probably won’t venture too far from home, the DIA predicted. "The primary purpose of this first domestic aircraft carrier will be to serve a regional defense mission," the intelligence agency claimed. "Beijing probably also will use the carrier to project power throughout the South China Sea and possibly into the Indian Ocean."
“The timeline for developing a carrier variant of the J-20 remains unclear,” Farley wrote. “Converting the aircraft to naval service may take some time.”
The Chinese navy could possess as many as six aircraft carriers by the mid-2030s, experts told state media. As many as four could have catapults.
Song Zhongping, a military expert and T.V. commentator, told Global Times that China needs at least five aircraft carriers to execute its military strategy. Wang Yunfei, a retired Chinese navy officer, said Beijing needs six flattops.
Six carriers might allow Beijing to equip each of its regional fleets with two flattops. One vessel could deploy while the other underwent maintenance.
If Chengdu does develop a carrier-based J-20, the Chinese navy eventually could operate a mixed carrier fleet including two small flattops with J-15s and as many as four bigger vessels with J-20s.