China is building a new carrier based fighter jet to replace its J-15 fighters after a series of crashes and mechanical failures, according to military experts and sources.
“In order to improve the combat effectiveness of the Chinese aircraft carrier strike groups, it is necessary to develop a new carrier-based fighter,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie was quoted as saying by South China Morning Post Wednesday.
China plans to create at least four aircraft carrier groups to fulfil its navy ambitions and to defend its overseas interest, Li said.
The need to develop a new fighter jet has become more pressing after a series of “unpardonable mechanical failures” that have killed one top PLA pilot and injured another.
Two sources close to the military told the Post there had been at least four crashes involving the J-15, although only two of them have been reported by state media.
“The J-15 is a problematic aircraft – its unstable flight control system was the key factor behind the two fatal accidents two years ago,” one of the sources said.
Pilot Zhang Chao, 29, died in a crash in April 2016 as he tried to save his J-15 fighter jet, whose flight control system was breaking down during a mock landing on an aircraft carrier, according to state media reports.
Three weeks later, his colleague Cao Xianjian, believed to be in his 40s, was seriously injured as he tried to deal with the same problem on a J-15. It took him more than a year to recover.
All J-15s were grounded for three months after the crashes, which undermined morale in the air force and navy. The navy called for an investigation after Zhang’s death, the sources said.
“But the aviation experts at first refused to acknowledge that the J-15 has design problems,” one of the sources said. “They only agreed there were problems after Cao encountered the same trouble.”
Many of China’s home-grown fighter jets have had problems with their engines, aircraft design and modifications. But a PLA Navy veteran said that instead of carrying out more test flights, pilots were pushed to fly the warplanes, even though they had faults.
“Of course it’s impossible to prevent any accident from ever happening during training. But unlike their counterparts in Western countries, Chinese air force pilots are asked to work around these mechanical errors,” the navy veteran said.
The J-15 was based on a prototype of the fourth-generation Russian Sukhoi Su-33 twin-engined air superiority fighter, a design that is more than 30 years old. It was developed by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, a unit of state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China.
With a maximum take-off weight of 33 tonnes, the aircraft is the heaviest active carrier-based fighter jet in the world, used on China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
China’s FC-31 is a newer generation stealth fighter that made its first flight in 2012, and is smaller and lighter than the J-15.