China has stepped up development of Catapult-Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) operations for its carriers, with the appearance of a Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark carrier-borne fighter with CATOBAR apparatus and continued construction of supporting land-based infrastructure.
In mid-September photos surfaced online of a J-15 with what appears to be a catapult launch bar on its nose wheel. These are used to couple the aircraft to the catapult of the carrier during the launch sequence, and would be the latest indication that China’s rumored third aircraft carrier will utilize the CATOBAR system of aircraft launch and recovery.
It is not clear whether this aircraft is a new-build prototype for the CATOBAR J-15, or one of the six original J-15 prototypes modified with a new nose wheel. Also noteworthy is that this J-15 is powered by the indigenous Shenyang-Liming WS-10 Taihang turbofan. Although already in widespread use with China’s land-based J-11 fighters, the Chinese engine has never gone to sea during trials and operations on China’s current sole aircraft carrier, Liaoning.
All production J-15s have so far been powered with the Russian AL-31 turbofans, and although some of the six J-15 prototypes have been seen flying with the WS-10, these aircraft were re-engined with AL-31s when they took part in the shipboard trials since they began in 2012.
This new aircraft is likely to be the first of a small number of prototypes that will be used to test China’s CATOBAR infrastructure, which has been undergoing construction at Huangdicun Airbase in Liaoning Province since late 2014 or early 2015, according to satellite imagery. The airbase is also home to the People’s Liberation Army – Navy’s (PLAN) sole regiment of operational J-15s.
These show what appear to be two catapult tracks, each measuring around 140 meters (460 feet) long, being built at the north-eastern corner of the base, along with a number of support buildings, a new runway and taxiway leading to the area. The tracks appear to be for a steam catapult and an equivalent to the US Navy’s Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System (EMALS).
China is currently building its first locally-constructed aircraft carrier at a shipyard in nearby Dalian. This second carrier, like the Liaoning, will utilize the Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) method of aircraft operations, with a sloping ski-jump to assist aircraft in taking off under their own power.
While STOBAR is just about sufficient for the powerful J-15 to conduct carrier operations with minimal take-off weight restrictions, it nevertheless precludes China’s carriers from operating heavier or less powerful fixed-wing carrier-borne aircraft, which prevents the PLAN’s carriers from realizing their full military potential.
Developing its own CATOBAR system, and fitting it on China’s future aircraft carriers will enable the PLAN to operate a well-rounded carrier air wing that includes force multipliers such as Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, which tend to be heavier and use less-powerful, but more efficient engines.