Colonel Brian Killough is the U.S. Air Force Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On November 25, the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) announced that it had successfully landed a fighter on the aircraft carrier, Liaoning, and then taken off again. Furthermore, Beijing released video of the event to prove it. Perhaps the most surprising but little mentioned aspect of the demonstration was that the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) chose to use the new J-15 fighter jet to demonstrate this capability. The J-15, a modified descendant of the Russian SU-33, has been in development since 2002 with a maiden flight in August 2009. The PLANAF could have gone the safer route and modified an older, lighter aircraft as a test-bed to develop procedures and steadily work its way toward a modern capability. Instead, it took considerable risk to do the test with a developmental fourth-generation fighter. Of note, the gear on the J-15 appear to be massive and capable of absorbing the high stress of carrier operations, and the aircraft engines clearly had no trouble achieving takeoff velocity on departure from the carrier (without any external stores—missiles, bombs or fuel tanks).
Of course, questions remain. Are all components of the aircraft robust and dependable enough for repeated operations in a very stressful, physically corrosive environment? The J-15 was clearly a test aircraft (note the telemetry decals on the aircraft) and, as far as we know, none of the J-15s are fully operational. Additionally, as one would expect, the aircraft was completely clean with no external stores onboard. Finally, taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier under ideal conditions (note the clear weather and calm seas) with no other shipboard aircraft or operations is a routine act for modern naval aviators. (For anyone interested in a historical perspective, the U.S. Navy has been operating jet aircraft off carriers since 1947, beginning with the McDonnell FH Phantom.)
So, what are the implications for this latest capability demonstration for the PLANAF? First, the massive amount of development and work required to field and operate a wing of these aircraft will take considerable time. That time will be shortened by the PLANAF’s ability to apply lessons learned by other navies but it will still have its share of obstacles to overcome. Ultimately, as I have noted before, putting a carrier to sea and putting expensive aircraft onboard makes it a very lucrative target that must also be accompanied by a supporting cast of ships in a carrier battle group. This group must be developed, fielded, and trained to operate as an effective force before it can be a credible extension of PRC national power.
If there is one thing we have come to know about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the twenty-first century, it is that the PRC is determined to attain and demonstrate capabilities that prove the PLA is a first-rate global military power. The PLA has demonstrated anti-satellite capability as well as produced and flown two prototype fifth-generation stealth aircraft. What the PLANAF has done this week is to continue putting one foot in front of the other on the path toward a credible global navy. It just seems to many that the steps were a little quicker than expected.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.