As the US begins to recalibrate its Indo-Pacific strategy in the aftermath of its controversial exit from Afghanistan, the American military might find itself more in the crosshairs of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in this new theater.
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Both the US Navy and PLAN boast uber-sophisticated carrier-based fighter fleets and have been wargaming to gain a competitive edge in the skies over disputed waters. The old but reliable F/A-18-F Super Hornet may potentially see itself pitted against the newer but raw Shenyang J-15, dubbed the Flying Shark.
Super Hornet Vs Flying Shark
The F/A-18 Super Hornet was inducted by the US military in 1999, whereas the J-15 joined the PLA in 2013. The general characteristics of both aircraft are as follows: the F/A-18 is 18.31 meters long and 4.88m tall. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 29,937 kilograms.
The J-15 on the other hand is 21.9m long and 5.92m in height and has an MTOW of 33,00kg.
The Super Hornet can cruise at maximum speeds of 1,915 kmph and has an effective combat range of 722km. The F/A-18’s ferry range is 3,330km and its service ceiling is 50,000 feet. The J-15 in comparison has a max speed of 2,409km/h, a combat range of 1,500km, a ferry range of 3,500 km, and a service ceiling of 66,000ft.
The Super Hornet is powered by two General Electric F414-GE-400 turbofan engines with 98 kilonewtons of thrust each engine. The J-15 is powered by two Shenyang WS-10 turbofan engines that produce 132 kN thrust per engine.
The F/A-18 comes armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles with a 35km range, the AIM-7 Sparrow medium-range A2A missile with an 85km range, and AIM-120 AMRAAM long-range A2A missile with a 160km range.
The J-15 is equipped with the PL-9 short-range A2A missiles with a 22km range, PL-12 medium-range A2A missiles with a 100km range, and a PL-15 long-range A2A missile with a 250km range.
Both the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Shenyang J-15 have advanced avionics which includes Active Electronically Scanned Array, Infrared Search, and Track and Radar Warning Receivers.
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While a direct one-on-one dogfight between the two carrier-based aircraft over the Indo-Pacific remains quite possible, there are contradictory assessments of their combat capabilities. The general consensus is that the F/A-18 is a proven aircraft while the J-15s performance remains an enigma.
China is known to model its military development projects based on US and Russian weapon systems. This has been a recurring theme in Chinese military research and development efforts.
There are uncanny resemblances between the J-15 and the Russian Su-33, fuelling speculation about similar combat capabilities of the two aircraft types.
However, long-time military aviation watcher, Amit Mukherjee offers a different take.
“J-15s are aerodynamically far superior to the FA-18 but FA-18 avionics and weapons package is still better. So, in Beyond Visual Range combat, I would expect the F-18 to win. F18- E/F incorporates some stealth features also.
“The J-15 has a fairly large radar signature. In close air combat, the J-15 should kill the F/A-18.
The J-15 take-off from Chinese STOBAR carriers. Hence cannot take off with full weapons payload. The F/A-18 takeoff from the US Navy CATOBAR carriers and can take off with full payload.”
This view was considered “logical” by a seasoned Indian Naval aviator, who did not wish to be named.
A contrary view is that the J-15 has distinct advantages over its F/A-18 in a dogfight scenario. The PLA Navy’s carrier limitations heavily negate them. A prevailing view is that the J-15 stands no chance against the F/A-18 at sea. This was voiced by Timothy Heath, a RAND Corporation senior defense researcher.
He was quoted as saying, “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.”
Regardless of the contrarian views, Beijing has long maintained that its Flying Shark has an edge over Washington’s Super Hornet and China’s strides in aircraft carrier technology may begin to be turning the tide in the Flying Shark’s favor.
China has two aircraft carriers and is expected to operate four by 2025. The Chinese Navy’s Soviet-style aircraft carriers have air-wings, which comprise a fleet of 20-30 J-15s.
However, detractors argue that the J-15 was developed based on an unfinished prototype of the Su-33, which Beijing had managed to acquire from Ukraine and reverse-engineer it, a result of which seems to be reliability issues.
Some experts believe that the J-15’s heavier weight bolsters its ability to carry more fuel and a higher weapons payload, which could give it an edge in air-to-air combat. However, a sticky issue is that the ski jump-assisted short take-off launch on Chinese aircraft carriers becomes self-defeating as the aircraft’s weight goes against it.
Captain DK Sharma (Retd), a decorated Indian Navy veteran who served as the Navy spokesperson, told the EurAsian Times that the two aircraft cannot be compared as, “Both are totally different like chalk and cheese. The F-18/18A is a proven platform with USN. The J-15 has not been seen by the world, and is more of propaganda.”
While both navies will come across one another in the Indo-Pacific, a direct confrontation between the American and Chinese carrier-based aircraft is something that is hard to predict at this juncture.
- Aritra Banerjee is a defense journalist who has worked in both online and print media. He has laid an emphasis on issues related to military human resources, tactical psychology, military-media relations, professional military education, and combat fitness. He can be reached at [email protected]
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