New Images Of China’s Elusive Catapult-Capable J-15T Carrier Fighter Emerge

Featuring beefed-up landing gear and indigenous engines, the J-15T should lead to a production fighter for China’s future supercarrier.

byThomas Newdick|
China photo


Recently revealed video provides, for the first time, a clear, up-close look at China’s future carrier-based multirole fighter, the Shenyang J-15T, which is derived from the Russian-made Su-33 Flanker-D. Unlike previous Chinese carrier variants of the Flanker, this one importantly features the modifications required to operate from its future catapult-equipped carriers.

The video appeared on China’s Weibo social media platform around November 17, 2020, before being fairly quickly removed, and was brought to wider attention by Andreas Rupprecht, an expert on Chinese military aerospace and friend of The War Zone who tweets as @RupprechtDeino. It originates from a Chinese TV news report from an unnamed naval air station, which Rupprecht subsequently identified as Huangdicun. This is the shore base for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-15 fleet, where its carrier aviators undergo training and qualifications. 

The short report shows three J-15 carrier fighters, two of which appear to be prototypes for the long-awaited catapult-capable J-15T version. The two aircraft in question are both painted in operational PLAN gray colors. Interestingly, they are also powered by indigenous engines, the WS-10 turbofans that also power other Chinese advanced Flanker derivatives, as evidenced by the different appearance of the exhaust nozzles. Previous J-15s utilized Russian-supplied AL-31 engines. 

A still from the Chinese TV news report showing three J-15s, apparently including a pair of J-15T versions partly covered with camouflage tarps., Chinese TV screencap
Another still, this time with a J-15 in the pattern overhead the airfield., Chinese TV screencap
A closer view of the J-15T nose landing gear and its launch bar (in the background)., Chinese TV screencap
A crudely annotated still from the news report highlighting the WS-10 engines on a J-15T., Chinese TV screencap

Outwardly, the J-15T can be readily identified by its strengthened nose landing gear, which is of a distinctly different design from the standard J-15. It has a longer and wider shock-absorbing oleo strut, plus a launch bar to hitch it up to the catapult. The aircraft’s main landing gear is also beefed up. All of this is required to cope with the stresses of catapult launch and arrested recovery on a flattop.

Rupprecht assesses that the two gray-painted aircraft are both J-15Ts, but only one can be confirmed as such from the video and they remain in the background of the clip throughout the report. They are parked next to each other and both have the black-and-white circular photo-calibration markings used to help determine test data during trials. Until now, only one J-15T prototype was known to exist, but there were also rumors that a second had been built. 

Meanwhile, in front of the two gray jets is one of the better-known early prototypes of the J-15, which retains its yellow primer that now looks extremely worn. The presenter states that one of the aircraft seen in the video has been retired from flight-testing and training activities, but doesn’t say which one. It is presumably this older jet. Prototype number 552 was one of two J-15s that performed the first official landings and take-offs back in November 2012 aboard the PLAN’s first aircraft carrier, the revamped Soviet-era carrier Liaoning, which was originally acquired by Beijing from Ukraine.  

J-15 prototype number 552, apparently now retired from use, with a J-15T in the background., Chinese TV screencap

Work on a new version of the J-15 adapted for catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery, or CATOBAR, configured carriers was first reported in late 2014. The Liaoning, in contrast, has arresting cables for aircraft recovery, but no catapults, and is instead equipped with a “ski jump” take-off ramp on the bow.  

The first prototype J-15T reportedly took to the air for the first time in July 2016. In November 2016 it was reported that a J-15 — perhaps a second J-15T prototype — launched successfully for the first time from the ground-based electromagnetic catapult facility at Huangdicun, a Chinese equivalent to the troubled Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) for the U.S. Navy’s Ford class carriers. It seems that parallel tests were also conducted using the steam-powered catapult that’s also found at Huangdicun. 

A satellite view showing a J-15T prototype at the end of the runway at Huangdicun in 2017. , via Andreas Rupprecht

It’s unclear when the CATOBAR-compatible J-15T will enter production for the PLAN, but, so far, there have been three batches of standard-series J-15s, with work on the last of these ongoing, to provide the backbone of the air wings for the Liaoning and sister vessel Shandong, a locally-built derivative of the original Soviet design, which also lacks catapults. With that in mind, it seems likely that the fourth production block will comprise CATOBAR aircraft, which will perhaps be designated J-15B.  

While the latest “reveal” of the J-15T must have been approved by the PLAN and, therefore, can be considered at least “semi-official,” it’s interesting to compare the progress made by this variant with construction work on the Type 003 aircraft carrier. This will be the PLAN’s first carrier with catapults, very possibly the electromagnetic types, and it’s currently taking shape at Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard. 

Providing China can master the technology involved, an electromagnetic launch system would offer several benefits to the PLAN’s burgeoning carrier air power. When working correctly, the launch system should help increase the number of sorties the carrier can generate and reduce the physical strain on aircraft, reducing demands on maintenance and logistics, as you can read about here.

An electromagnetic launch system also makes sense when taking into account reports that China’s Sharp Sword stealth flying wing unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) will be deployed aboard PLAN carriers in the future. This type of launch equipment is better able to handle far lighter aircraft, such as drones, compared to traditional steam catapults. 

Whenever the CATOBAR-compatible J-15 appears in service, it’s clear that the PLAN is eagerly awaiting new fighter equipment. While this is a further development of the existing naval Flanker, rather than an all-new design, the fact it will launch from a catapult, rather than a ramp, promises to significantly increase the payload — fuel, weapons, and other stores — that it will be able to carry. Currently, the basic J-15, and Su-33 from which it is derived, have to operate reduced weapons and fuel loads to be light enough to get off the deck safely.

An inflight view of the first prototype J-15T, showing the beefed-up landing gear and catapult launch bar., via Andreas Rupprecht

Amid reports of several aircraft losses, in the past, there have also been concerns about the safety of the baseline J-15, which The War Zone addressed here. As such, the new version may incorporate changes to help alleviate those reported shortcomings, which are rumored to relate primarily to an “unstable flight control system.”  

In 2018, it was reported that the PLAN was seeking a successor to its J-15. While there were some suggestions that this might take the form of a navalized version of the stealthy Shenyang FC-31, this may well be the CATOBAR type now being tested in J-15T prototype form. If anything else, the new J-15s could make up a mixed air wing with stealthy fighters and drones. 

There is also a two-seat J-15D version of the PLAN’s carrier Flanker that has been tested, apparently with electronic warfare jamming pods on the wingtips, similar in broad form and function to the U.S. Navy’s EA-18G Growler. While the status of this aircraft is unclear, it’s likely that any production version would feature the same CATOBAR changes introduced on the J-15T. 

A rear view of the first prototype J-15T., via Andreas Rupprecht

Potentially, production versions of the J-15D and/or J-15T for the PLAN could also incorporate some of the advanced new features that have been noted on land-based Chinese Flankers, including a possible anti-radiation missile for the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) mission, and an ultra-long-range air-to-air missile. These, or other weapons, could greatly increase the aircraft’s versatility, and lethality, compared to the baseline J-15.  

As well as the superior capabilities promised by a new version of the J-15, the PLAN urgently needs carrier fighters in general, as it aims to introduce at least four carriers in the coming years, each of which will need an air wing. Furthermore, additional aircraft will be needed to ensure a steady flow of suitably qualified pilots, some of whom, it was recently reported, are being trained as naval aviators after being recruited straight out of high school.

It’s not only new fighters that are being prepared for the future carriers. Work is also reportedly well advanced on a carrier-based airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, the Xi’an KJ-600. Last summer there were unconfirmed reports that this aircraft had completed its first flight, from a land base. The KJ-600 is a PLAN equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye and reflects the service’s ambitions to develop a more comprehensive PLAN carrier air wing. An aircraft of this type would almost certainly require a catapult launch to operate from an aircraft carrier, due to its size and weight, and the limited thrust compared with a fighter jet.

With the PLAN at large expanding at a prodigious rate, it’s likely we won’t have to wait too long to see a catapult-capable J-15 go to sea aboard China’s next aircraft carrier.

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