Naval Air: The Mysterious And Much Anticipated J-19

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March 11, 2011:  Despite the imminent arrival of its first two aircraft carriers, Chinese naval aviation will, for the rest of the decade, concentrate on land based bombers (armed with better anti-ship missiles) and patrol aircraft. The principal bomber is the JH-7A, which is a 28 ton, twin engine aircraft, with a 12.9 meter/40 foot wingspan. The navy has about a hundred of these. While underpowered, it can carry nine ton of bombs, missiles or additional fuel. Now, by using new Chinese made smart bombs and air-to-ground missiles, the JH-7 becomes more useful. The aircraft has an operational radius of about 900 kilometers, enabling it to contribute to an attack on Taiwan, or a blockade of the island's ports. The JH7A could carry four YJ-82 anti-ship missiles. Each of these weighs 715 kg (1573 pounds) with a 165 kg (360 pound) warhead. Range is about 120 kilometers, and the missile uses a radar to find and hit its target. China wants to build another 150 JH-7As, with more powerful engines and better electronics, and is apparently doing that now that it has developed the engines it needs.

In the meantime, the carriers are getting land based aircraft modified (tail hook, stronger landing gear) for their use until custom built carrier aircraft arrive. A carrier fighter-bomber, sometimes referred to as the J-19, is still being designed.

Currently, China has two aircraft carriers (Shi Lang and "Carrier F") under construction, with one going to sea by next year. Apparently, the main Chinese carrier fighter is a navalized version of the J-11 (an illegal clone of the Russian Su-27). China got one of the Russian navalized Su-27s (the Su-33) from Ukraine, and are stealing more technology to navalize their 30 ton J-11 as the J-11BH (formerly the J-15). These will not be ready before the Shi Lang puts to sea. Instead, it appears that navalized jet trainers will be used (the 9.8 ton JL-9, and possibly the more recent 9.5 ton JL-15).

China already has naval helicopters for their carriers. These include the Russian Ka-28 (submarine search) and Ka-31 (radar early warning) and Mi-8 (transports). China is still having problems designing and building naval helicopters that can match or surpass Russian models. So Russian choppers will continue in service for at least another decade.

The Shi Lang has a maximum capacity of 50 jets and 18 helicopters, but it appears that China will not be using that many on their carriers initially. The Russians never maxed out the air wing on these ships either. Moreover, the most common use of Chinese carriers in the first few years will be training and, on occasion, "showing the flag" (visiting foreign ports to, well, show off.) Both training and show-off missions, will probably involve a carrier air wing of eight jets and 9-10 helicopters (six ASW/Anti-Submarine Warfare, three AEW/radar early warning and one SAR/search and rescue.) Once the J-11BH is ready, there will be several years of training pilots and carrier deck crews to handle this larger aircraft. So it won't be until the 2020s before China is ready to send a carrier to sea with a militarily significant air wing. This will include J-11BH fighters J-10AH light bombers, as well as AEW, ASW and SAR helicopters.

Three years ago, China announced that its first class of carrier aviators had begun training at the Dalian Naval Academy. The naval officers are undergoing a four year course of instruction to turn them into fighter pilots capable of operating off a carrier. China already has an airfield, in the shape of a carrier deck, built at an inland facility. The Russians have warned China that it may take them a decade or more to develop the knowledge and skills needed to efficiently run an aircraft carrier. The Chinese are game, and are slogging forward.

 

 


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