The battle between the two main carrier-based fighters of the US and China, J-15 vs F/A-18E/F, is a favorite topic for observers and military enthusiasts.
The ambition to become a sea power pushed China into the race to build a series of warships. Among these, the development of the carrier combat group is considered an important content.
After Liaoning, a Varyag aircraft cruiser purchased from Ukraine, China commissioned the first indigenous aircraft carrier Type-001A Shandong in December 2019. Construction of new carriers is still underway, including carriers with electromagnetic catapult technology.
However, the carrier game is not an easy one. The operation of the Liaoning has exposed China’s technical weaknesses, but the most important thing is to have carrier-based fighters that are reliable and powerful enough to take advantage of the aircraft carrier.
To fulfill its aircraft carrier dream, China quickly developed the J-15, a carrier-based fighter based on a Su-33 prototype, was acquired from Ukraine in 2001.
Since its inception in 2015, the Chinese media has hailed the J-15 as an excellent fighter, on par or better than its counterpart. The J-15 Flying Shark was immediately compared to the US Navy’s two-seat F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter.
The US has begun commissioning the F-35C for the US Navy in limited numbers. With 11 aircraft carriers, however, it will be far from the necessary numbers of F-35Cs. Until then, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will remain the backbone of the US Naval Air Force.
Recent tensions between the two countries and uncertainties in the South China Sea make the J-15 and F/A-18E/F likely rivals in a potential sea conflict. The battle between the two main carrier-based fighters of the US and China is a favorite topic for observers and military enthusiasts.
In terms of design
The original F/A-18 E/F was intended to be an attack aircraft, so in terms of maneuverability it could not be compared to a specialized fighter jet like the J-15. But in terms of features of a carrier-based fighter, the strength of the F/A-18 E/F with a wide variety of weapons systems is much greater than that of the J-15.
Both fighters are aiming for a large fighter design, to carry more fuel, increase combat radius and weapon payload, the J-15 is no exception.
In terms of engines
The J-15 uses Shenyang WS-10 afterburning turbofan engines with 132 kN (30,000 lbf) thrust each, while the F/A-18E/F uses General Electric F414-GE-400 turbofan engines, producing 98 kN each.
As can be seen, the Chinese Military has stated that the J-15 is superior to the US Super Hornet, and in some narrow respects this is true.
Engine differences make the speed and maneuverability of the F/A-18E/F not equal to that of the J-15. The J-15 is faster with a maximum speed of 2,409 km/h (1,497 mph) compared to 1,915 km/h (1,190 mph) for the Super Hornet; has a maximum G-load of 8.5 compared to 7.5; possibly a bit higher-flying with a service ceiling of 16,700 m (55,000 ft) compared to 15,000 m (50,000 ft); and it may technically even have a longer range.
Objectively, the J-15 is superior to the F/A-18 E/F in terms of size, speed, service ceiling, combat radius and maneuverability. Theoretically, in a one-on-one fight, given the same pilot qualifications, the Super Hornet is unlikely to win against the J-15.
In fact, all Chinese carriers use a curved ski-jump style flight deck. The J-15 has to reduce its payload, fuel and weapons, much lower than its design, making its actual combat capabilities not as high as intended. Chinese WS-10 turbofans have proven extremely trouble-prone and required frequent factory-level maintenance.
Meanwhile, Super Hornet uses a more advanced catapult-assisted takeoff system, helping to maximize the full power of the war machine. The upgrades of the GE F-414 engine are a breakthrough, easy to maintain and reliable.
Comparing navigation systems, radar and avionics
It is clear that the F/A-18E/ F is far superior to the J-15. Keep in mind that the J-15 is based on an incomplete Su-33 prototype produced in the 1980s. Furthermore, the Super Hornet has a wealth of combat experience, compared with the J-15 which is almost zero.
The upgraded version of the F/A-18E/F is much more powerful than its original. When first produced, the F/A-18 E/F used the APG-73, later replaced by the AN/APG-79 active electronically scanned array radar.
In modern air combat, advanced radars combined with AIM-120C Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles and AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missiles will help the F/A-18E/F detect the enemy first, and is dominant in air attack.
The J-15 has an eye-catching appearance, featuring a modern ‘glass cockpit’ with hands-on-throttle-and stick controls transmitting commands through a fly-by-wire system, and a modern heads-up display. It also has an Infrared Search and Track System, something most U.S. fighters lack. It also has a laser-range finder turret in front of the canopy which is useful for discretely stalking adversaries at short range and detecting stealth aircraft. The airframe is also reportedly covered in radar-absorbent coating.
China is currently working on the AESA radar, but the gap between research and mass production varies greatly, and it is believed that the AESA radar that the J-15 is using is likely to be inferior to that of the US.
It is also important to consider the element of systemic antagonism in battles between aircraft carriers, such as modern warning aircraft, especially those with a very long range from the mother ship. In this respect, Liaoning and Shandong are too obsolete compared to US carriers.
Modern early warning aircraft can detect enemy aircraft from a distance, helping the F/A-18 E/F to have decisive parameters in aerial combat such as: number of aircraft, squadron shape and direction of the enemy to have suitable coping strategies.
These advantages are enough to make up for the lack of maneuverability of the Super Hornet.
In terms of weapons systems
The F/A-18 E/F is superior to the J-15. It has had a lot of experience through the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and so on.
The F/A-18E/F can carry weapons such as: AGM-88 Anti-Radiation Missile, AGM-154 glide bomb with a range of 130km, SLAM-ER Land Attack Missile with a range of 250km, AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile with a range of 22km, AGM-84 anti-ship missile with a range of 220km to 315km.
Super Hornet air-to-air weapons include: 4 AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missiles, 4 AIM-120C medium-range air-to-air missiles. There are also other guided and unguided bombs. When needed, the F/A-18E/F can be compatible with all air weapons that the US has.
Meanwhile, the J-15 is still too young and still in development. The weapon system is still unknown, but considering all the most advanced weapons China has, such as the SD-10, PL-12 air-to-air missile; the YJ-82 subsonic anti-ship cruise missile, the KD-88 anti-ship missile, etc., all of them are inferior to all US weapons, especially the range and the accuracy.
If the J-15 uses all the Russian air attack weapons they have such as Kh-31, Kh-58, Kh-59, R-73, R-77, KAB-500 satellite-guided bomb, etc, then reluctance to be comparable to the F/A-18E/F.
Of course, China still has a long way to go before it can catch up with the US Navy. But with what has been done only in the past two decades, there is no doubt the Chinese will eventually somehow acquire the know-how in the defense industry, and will catch up with the West.
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