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J-15: Meet the Aircraft Fighter China ‘Stole’ from Russia

J-15 fighter. Image Credit: Chinese Internet.
J-15 fighter. Image Credit: Chinese Internet.

China has been in an aircraft carrier-building frenzy for the last decade. And that means Beijing needs planes like the J-15 fighter to perform. However, the J-15 is imperfect and might not be able to take on the best from the United States

The J-15 jet, nicknamed “Flying Shark,” first entered service with China’s People’s Liberation Naval Air Force in 2014. It was manufactured by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, a subsidiary of the state-owned defense conglomerate Aviation Industry Corporation of China.

According to a May 2021 report by The Diplomat, some 50 units of the jet are currently in operation. The J-15 is China’s first carrier-borne fighter jet, meaning that it was primarily designed for China’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers.

In December 2021, China revealed an upgraded version of the jet, featuring updates to its missile pylons, radar, wings, and infrared search and track system. According to the state-affiliated media outlet Global Times, the upgraded version of the J-15 could be capable of carrying a short-range combat missile.

These improvements led a Chinese military expert to suggest the fourth-gen J-15 could be considered a “fourth-generation-plus” fighter jet in discussions with China’s Global Times.

Military 4.5-generation jets feature active electronically scanned array radar, high capacity data links, and the ability to deploy advanced armaments, according to the science and technology publication, citing definitions by the 2020 US Defense Authorization Act. It’s unclear if the J-15 meets these conditions.

The J-15 is modeled after the Soviet-made Su-33 jet

China purchased an unfinished prototype of the Su-33 and built the J-15 based on the Soviet jet’s airframe, The National Interest reported. The Su-33 was first produced in 1987, per United Aircraft Corporation.

Several Russian weapon systems, including the J-15, were copied without permission, according to a 2017 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

As the J-15 is essentially an unlicensed copy of the Su-33, the jets have basically identical dimensions. The J-15 measures 21.9 meters in length, 14.7 meters in height, and has a wingspan of 14.7 meters, according to Military Today.


Su-33. Image Credit: Artist Rendering.

One point of difference between the J-15 and Su-33 is the engines. While the J-15 jet operates with the Chinese-made WS-10, the Su-33 uses the Saturn AL-31.

The indigenous WS-10 engine has been described as “underdeveloped” compared to the Russian engines China has traditionally relied on Russia for, per The National Interest. Several other Chinese jets also use the WS-10, including the J-20 and J-16 jets.

Flying Close to U.S. Navy

Yue Gang, a former Chinese colonel, said the features of the warship in the video matched the characteristics of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, citing its large, four-sided phased array radar antenna, double funnel, and anti-submarine torpedoes, SCMP reported.

Chinese military expert Song Zhongping told the Global Times that he also identified the warship in the video as a US destroyer. Other observers, however, noted that Japan and South Korea have ships based on the Arleigh Burke class design.

The US and Chinese militaries routinely find themselves in close proximity in the Indo-Pacific region, including some tense interactions.

China is trying to build a stronger military that can hold its own against the United States’ armed forces. According to a December 2021 report by the Harvard Kennedy School, China has strived to modernize its military since Xi Jinping’s reforms in 2015 in order to “shift the balance of power” in the growing military rivalry between China and the US.

No F-35 For Sure

According to The National Interest’s Kris Osborn, who served as an expert at the Pentagon, the J-15 can’t compete with the F-35C and F-35B jets even with upgrades, mainly because the J-15 is only a fourth-generation jet while the F-35 is a fifth-generation aircraft.

Osborn said that even an upgraded J-15 will have difficulties with regard to air supremacy against the F-35s, the C and B variants of which serve aboard US carriers and amphibious assault ships.

Unlike these fifth-generation aircraft, the J-15 lacks advanced radar evading capabilities, per The Diplomat. The F-35’s VLO stealth enables it to “evade enemy detection and enter contested airspace,” per Lockheed Martin.

U.S. Planes Can Beat the J-15 in Battle

While the J-15 has underpowered engines, it can carry more weapons and fuel, so it’s capable of flying higher and faster than the F/A-18, Insider reported.

But China’s aircraft carriers limit the advantages of the J-15. The Liaoning and Shandong, which carry complements of J-15 jets, use ski-jump assisted short take-off launch systems over catapults.

According to senior defense researcher Timothy Heath, a ski-slope configuration makes it difficult for the J-15 to take off with a full payload. In comparison, the F/A-18 can launch with a full load of fuel and weaponry because US carriers use catapult-assisted take-off.

“If you’re talking about the J-15 going up against the F/A-18 at sea, then the F/A-18 is going to destroy the J-15,” Heath told Insider two years ago.

China has since launched a new aircraft carrier with catapults that could allow the J-15 to better compete with the F/A-18.

$61 Million Per Plane

While much pricier than other locally made counterparts like the JL-9, which Zhou, a Beijing-based military expert, estimates costs about $10 million, the J-15 is far from being China’s most expensive fighter jet. The fifth-generation J-20, which entered service in March 2017, costs between $100 million to $120 million per unit, according to SCMP.

“The J-15 is expensive because it is an attack fighter jet and needs to be fitted with sophisticated devices and weapons,”  Zhou told SCMP in a 2020 report.

The initial model of the J-15 is a single-seat variant of the jet, per The National Interest. There’s also a twin-seat variant, the J-15S.

Another variant of the jet is the J-15T, which is coated with an anti-corrosion material.

The J-15B, the jet’s latest variant, has an improved avionics suite that enhances air superiority and strike capability, per The Diplomat.

Marielle Descalsota is a photojournalist and the junior visual features reporter at Insider’s Singapore bureau, where she covers travel, lifestyle, and deep dives on Asia. She first joined the bureau as a visual features fellow in 2022. She graduated with a BA (Hons) in English literature and communications from the Nanyang Technological University in 2021. She currently pursues a Master’s degree at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This first appeared in Insider.

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Marielle Descalsota Marielle is the visual features fellow at Insider's Singapore bureau.