When China unveiled the J-15 "Flying Shark" naval fighter in 2010, the world of military analysts was abuzz about the surprising development of China's fighter program and fighter technology. Since then, the luster seems to have waned considerably as many international observers have marginalized the effectiveness of China's new fighter in terms of its capability and originality.
After a strong showing of the J-15 during a test of the new fighter and the unexpected death of its principal creator, China has started a media offensive against the critics of their prized "Made in China" fighter.
Given the veil of secrecy that China has pulled over its weapons programs, one cannot say one way or another whether the J-15 is a copycat version of the Su-33 (a Russion fighter jet). What is certain is that China feels its pride is on the line and that it needs to vindicate the superiority and originality of its "indigenous" naval fighter.
Since the unveiling of the J-15, international critics have dismissed the notion that this "new" fighter was a real threat or even an original design, as many military analysts have noted shortcomings in the design and the strong probability that the design was plagiarized from Russian and American technology.
Russia was among the first to criticize the J-15's design and originality. Colonel Igor Korotchenko (Ret.), a member of the Defense Ministry's Public Council told Ria Novosti that China's naval figher was a "clone" of the Russian Su-33, a multi-role fighter used on the Kuznetsov Class aircraft carriers, which includes the Liaoning.
Korotchenko also stated that the Chinese J-15 was the product of stalled talks on the sale of "authentic" Su-33 jetsfrom Russia to China as well as inferior Chinese reverse engineering of Russian technology.
"The Chinese J-15 clone is unlikely to achieve the same performance characteristics of the Russian Su-33 carrier-based fighter, and I do not rule out the possibility that China could return to negotiations with Russia on the purchase of a substantial batch of Su-33s," said Korotchenko.
These observations were mirrored by the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank. According to the Center, the J-15 was initially derived from a prototype copy of the Su-33 from Ukraine.
Meanwhile, US observers have also noted that the J-15 is plagued by development problems and veiled by secrecy, mixed with uncertain intentions from the Chinese in rising maritime disputes with China's Asian neighbors over the South China Sea and Senkaku Islands.
The China Sign Post noted that the J-15 will likely be an anti-ship fighter used to support surface vessels, but also observed that there is a long laundry list of development shortcomings with the J-15, including troubles with its launch platform, landing gear, range, and payload.
When asked about the "concerns" that the J-15's successful landing test raise in relation with China's maritime disputes, Victoria Nuland, the U.S. State Department's spokesperson, responded by saying:
"[The US] continue[s] to monitor all Chinese military developments very carefully. This is another in the category of our regular requests that China be as transparent as it can about its military capabilities and intentions, and we regularly encourage China both privately and publicly to use its military capabilities, including this new aircraft carrier, in a manner that is conducive to maintaining peace and security and stability in the Asia Pacific region."
In sum, the J-15 has been labeled as a knockoff naval fighter that will not be able to perform as well as the "original" and other carrier-based fighters in the Asia-Pacific region by its critics. Furthermore, this "Shark" has been marked as a tool of China's assertiveness in its territorial disputes.
China's Strong Rebuke
After the successful landing of the J-15 on China's new carrier - the Liaoning - and the sudden death of the chief designer of the J-15 on November 25, China came out swinging against the critics of its new fighter by answering them with strong language.
In response to Russian accusations of the inferiority of the J-15 and derivative nature of its fighter, the official Chinese media have struck back by claiming that the J-15 is "superior to [the] Russian Su-33." No evidence has been provided by China to prove this rather bold assertion.
Geng Yansheng, a spokesman of the Ministry of National Defense of China said, "The world military affairs have an objective law of development. Many weapons have the same design principle and some command and protection methods are also similar. Therefore, it at least is non-professional to conclude that China copied the aircraft carrier technology of other countries only by simply comparison.”
China responded with equal toughness to US assertions of secrecy in China's weapons system production and intentions. Geng stated that "China is always open to military transparency and frankly speaking, the J-15 experiment is quite transparent."
Wu Shengli, China's navy chief, was said to have briefed the U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on the J-15 and test trials of the Liaoning, though what was included in that briefing is not know to the public.
China also added a zing in their response. Pan Zheng, a U.S. military studies scholar at the People's Liberation Army National Defense University, posed a snarky response to U.S. concerns about China's intentions for the J-15 and Liaoning by suggesting that "the US should also ask itself how transparent it has been to China." One may wonder what this means as the U.S. has been transparent about its role as a guardian of regional security in Asia for its allies and Taiwan.
By and large, China seems to be highly defensive about the scathing criticism heaped upon its new naval fighters. At the same time, the official media offers no hard answers about the J-15's design - as one may reasonably expect of any national government - and even less about intentions that the Chinese military has for its new weapon.
The Real Deal from China
The facts, at present, leaves us with no concrete answer on whether or not the J-15 is a "clone" of the Russian Su-33 or about its capabilities as a naval fighter. As with any national military, the specifications of the design for the J-15 will not and, in the eyes of Beijing, shoud not be made public to ally concerns from the U.S. and others.
However, we do know these facts about the J-15:
First, the J-15's frame and exterior is extremely close to that of the Russian Su-33.
Second, the J-15's engine is supplied by the Russians.
Third, the J-15's performance remains below that of top U.S. naval fighters deployed in the Asia-Pacific region.
Finally, the J-15 and China's aircraft carrier have a long way to go before they can be a credible challenge to either the U.S. or its Asian allies as it may take up to twenty years to create an operational carrier group.
In conclusion, the J-15 represents a highly evident effort by China to modernize its naval power in the Asia-Pacific region and something the U.S., Russia, Asia, and the world ought to continue to monitor as it becomes an operational weapon systems, alongside China's aircraft carrier program.