Naval Air: One If By Land, Two If By Sea

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August 31, 2018: The Chinese Navy recently received twelve twin engine L-15 jet trainers to provide more, and less expensive, training for pilots. As a trainer, the L-15 is cheaper to buy and cheaper to operate than using carrier fighters for training. The L-15 has two engines, which is more the norm for navy fighters because they spend more time operating over salt water where engine failure is more of a problem than over land and all that salt water creates more reliability problems.

This L-15 purchase by the navy is a big deal because since it first flew in 2006 the L-15 has been offered to the Chinese armed forces and foreign customers, without much success. In 2012 it sold twelve to an unidentified customer. In 2014 it sold six to Zambia and the Chinese Air Force has bought a few for evaluation but so far no larger orders have materialized. This is odd because the L-15 seems to be an excellent trainer that is economical to purchase and maintain.

Back in 2006 a Chinese aircraft manufacturer (Hongdu) confidently offered for sale the L-15, a 9.5 ton twin-engine, two seat aircraft with a max speed of 1,200 kilometers an hour and a max range of 2,600 kilometers (or combat radius of 600 kilometers is used as an attack aircraft). The L-15 was touted as a more suitable trainer for pilots headed for high performance (like the Su-30, F-16 or J-10) aircraft. It was, but Hongdu underestimated the competition. In 2010 an attack version of the L-15 jet trainer was offered for sale. Normally, the L-15 just carries a trainee pilot and an instructor. But the attack version has a pilot and a weapons systems officer. The L-15 has six hard points to hang about three tons of weapons from.

The problem Hongdu missed was that the Chinese were in the custom of moving new pilots to the actual jet fighters they would specialize in and let them get their advanced training there, on the job so to speak. Combat squadron commanders had come to depend on this because it seemed to work and there were never any real complaints about that. With the creation of a carrier aviation force, with the need for pilots to develop better flying skills sooner, the L-15 seemed to have found a place. Air Force pilots will admit that learning to operate off a carrier at sea is more difficult than anything non-carrier pilots have to train for.

The completion of the L-15 never seemed able to overcome was the older K-8, which is a smaller, cheaper Chinese jet trainer that is also built by Hongdu. The K-8 is a 4.3 ton, two seat aircraft. The trainee and instructor are replaced by a pilot and observer on combat missions. Max speed is 800 kilometers an hour. The K-8 entered service in 1994, and over 500 have been built. The aircraft can be fitted with a 23mm cannon, and carry nearly a ton of missiles and bombs. The primary customers are Chinese but Egypt, Burma and Pakistan also use the K-8. The aircraft sells for $10 million each. The L-15 sells for 50 percent more and carries more than twice as many weapons. But so far, Chinese military aviation has found it more economical to buy the K-8. Hongdu expects that to eventually change and that is why it has kept the L-15 in production for twelve years and constantly updated it.

 


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