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China May Be Flight Testing A V/STOL Fighter

by John Reed on April 22, 2011

We heard a little chatter about this earlier in the month; apparently China is test flying its own vertical/short take-off and landing fighter jet dubbed the J-18. According to my old colleague Wendell Minnick at Defense News, the jet is similar in appearance to Russia’s Su-33 carrier based evolution of Sukhoi’s famous Su-27 line.

(The image above is a Soviet-designed Yak-141 VTOL fighter; recognize that rotating rear nozzle and forward lift-fan design?)

While the flight of a Chinese V/STOL aircraft is unconfirmed, the aircraft’s existence would make sense as Minnick’s article ably points out.

China’s defense industry is largely opaque and it is difficult to substantiate Internet chatter. However, Chinese-language military blogs reported the first test flight of the stealthy J-20 Black Eagle fighter in January, much to the surprise of the Western media.

Now there are reports emerging of a test flight of the J-18. Tests were supposedly conducted earlier this month and the fighter is similar to the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-based fighter.

“In 2005, a Chinese aviation industry source told me the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation was considering a F-35B-like program,” said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center. “Given the PLA’s naval power projection ambitions, it is probable there is VSTOL or STOVL [short takeoff and vertical landing] fighter program.”

We’ll see if this is true but, it does seem plausible given the fact that the PLAN is working to begin sea trials with its first carrier, the ex-Soviet Varyag, now known as the Shi Lang, soon. Yes, that ship might use the J-15, a Chinese version of the Su-33, as its carrier flight ops guinea pigs but who’s to say the PLAN doesn’t want to look into V/STOL operations off the ship as well.

Also, keep in mind that V/STOL jets like the F-35B and AV-8B Harrier are well suited for smaller carriers like the U.S. Navy’s Tarawa and Wasp class ships which are used to support amphibious assaults far from home. While the PLAN is rumored to be fielding at least three big deck carriers based on the Shi Lang, the arrival of a S/TOVL fighter may be a hint that Chinese officials are interested in developing smaller, expeditionary assault carriers as one more tool to ‘protect what is theirs,’ whatever that means. Remember, China is already refining the ground component of its amphibious assault force.

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