J-15: How China copied the Russian Su-33 fighter

The US military has benefited greatly from maintaining air superiority over adversaries worldwide for decades. US authorities have poured billions of dollars into the programs that have produced fifth-generation fighters, stealth bombers, and cutting-edge airframes across the board.

Since the post-World War II era, the pursuit of superior air power has undoubtedly monopolized the global projection of American military might. 

The Air Force continues to invest its resources in a family of Next Generation Air Domain (NGAD) systems; however, America’s competitors are catching up and possibly overtaking what was once considered US-dominated skies.

The PRC has poured much of its investment into a modernized air force in the past ten years. The carrier-based Shenyang J-15 fourth-generation fighter represents one of the most advanced airframes in Beijing.

The J-15, a copy of the Russian Su-33?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the PRC made several attempts to acquire the Russian carrier-capable Su-33 fighter. In the end, Moscow refused to hand over its then most powerful Su-33 jets to Beijing after the Kremlin discovered that the PRC had violated intellectual property agreements relating to its Su-27SK.

Initially, Moscow authorized the delivery of its robust Sukhoi “Flanker” multi-role fighter. However, the Chinese company Shenyang Aircraft Corporation reverse-engineered parts of the platform without permission from Moscow. China incorporated its own engines and avionics instead of using Russian-made models, souring relations between the two countries.

J-15: How China copied the Russian Su-33 fighter

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) used similar tactics to produce a Su-33 mimic. Unable to legally acquire the new Russian fighter, China purchased a single prototype Su-33 airframe, dubbed the T-10K-3, from Ukraine and began reverse-engineering its components.

Nicknamed “Flying Shark” by the PLAAF and “Flanker-X2” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the J-15 entered service with the People’s Liberation Army in 2014. The J-15 was manufactured by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, the same company believed to have reverse-engineered the Su-27SK.

The Russian media have torn the Flying Shark into pieces.

Like its Su-33 counterpart, the J-15 features a folding wing design. However, the Flying Shark can travel much faster and with a higher service ceiling than the Su-33. Despite this, Moscow has spared no slander against the Chinese impersonator.

As detailed in a Business Insider article, Russian media outlet Sputnik reported that “the J-15 is too heavy to operate efficiently from aircraft carriers, it has problems with its flight control systems, which have led to several accidents, and more,” adding that “Beijing doesn’t even have enough J-15s to equip its two aircraft carriers.”

An improved variant of the J-15

China debuted an upgraded variant of the J-15 fighter in 2021, which featured improvements to its radar, wings, missile pylons, and infrared search and track systems

According to the Chinese news outlet Global Times, the new variant could carry a short-range combat missile. China’s J-15 fighters have been re-equipped with locally made WS-10 engines in the past year.

The PLAAF’s decision to dispense with the original Russian AL-31F engines indicates that Beijing is confident in its new domestic product. Analysts and industry experts have claimed that China’s WS-10 engines are falling short and could be termed “underdeveloped.”

Regardless of the actual capabilities of the J-15’s newly installed engines, the fighter can carry more weapons and fuel than some of its close relatives. However, China’s additional new-generation fighters, including the Chengdu J-20, more than makeup for the Flying Shark’s shortcomings.