Recently, there have been a lot of news and discussions about China’s new aircraft carrier. In addition to the launch of the New Type 003 aircraft carrier, China has also recently equipped the J-35 Stealth Carrier-Based Air Superiority Fighter with new features such as new engines and new technologies. The J-35 can be seen as the opponent of the American F-35C Lightning II Stealth Carrier-Based Multirole Fighter.
Although the J-35 and F-35 may look somewhat similar, the F-35 is much better and far more advanced in terms of stealth and other technologies areas, also the development period and process of both fighters have a big difference. Let’s talk about both of these fighters, starting from the F-35!
In the late 1970 during the height of the Cold War, the United States had started the designing process of a brand new fighter aircraft, during the 1980s this “brand new fighter” was named and known as the Advanced Tactical Fighter Project or ATF, the ATF program eventually became the F-22 Raptor Stealthy Fifth-generation Fighter. At that time the F-22 was a very advanced Air Superiority or Air Dominance Fighter with limited ground-attack capabilities, the F-22 was originally designed to counter the threat posed by advanced large Air Superiority Fighters of the Soviet Union such as the Su-27, Su-30 and the Mikoyan MiG-29.
The United States has also planned to develop a Fighter-bomber or Tactical Bomber version of the Stealthy F-22, named as the FB-22 Strike Raptor. The FB-22 was supposed to fill the gap of a tactical bomber in the USAF after the retirement of the F-111 Aardvark tactical bomber. The FB-22 was ultimately cancelled.
Later, the United States launched the world’s largest and most expensive military weapon development program, to develop a single engine stealth fighter named as the “Joint Strike Fighter”. This fighter was supposed to complement the F-22 Raptor and replace a large number of fighters types active with the USAF and US Navy. This fighter was to be purchased by the USAF, US Navy and U. S. Marine Corps.
The overall purpose of this program was to provide a Stealth Fighter for use by the USAF, US Navy and the USMC. This was also supposed to reduce various types of costs in terms of logistics, maintenance, training, etc.
There were several advantages of this program, such as it can arm the United States and its allies with a advanced stealth fighter to fight against other countries, and it can also improve the development capabilities of these countries and tie them together into a powerful group. But this also had a major disadvantage, that is, it limits the ability of the F-35 fighter to itself.
Due to the excessive importance on developing a Multi-purpose capabilities equipped fighter, the air combat strength and flight performance of the F-35 itself did not actually open a significant gap with the 4th generation aircrafts, and even the service time of the aircraft was greatly delayed due to multiple requirements, which was given by other countries.
The F-35A is essentially a stealthy fighter-bomber, while the F-35B is a good fighter that has greatly sacrificed its performance capabilities for vertical take-off and landing capabilities, and the F-35C is a advanced naval version of the F-35 Lightning II. So this seems like an embarrassment that the United States Navy aircraft carriers aircraft wings has no air superiority fighters at all at present time. The F-35C is a stealth fighter-bomber and the Super Hornet is a non-stealth multirole fighter. Both of these carrier-based fighters are designed for Multirole purposes and lacks the ability of a pure Air Superiority Fighter.
On the other hand, the Chinese J-35 and J-15 are both Air Superiority Fighters. The J-15 is a naval carrier based re-engineered version of the Sukhoi Su-33 “Sea Flanker”. Although China has modified the J-15 and added good attack capabilities into the aircraft, but the Su-33 is still a much better fighter as compared to the J-15. In some areas, the Su-33 is even more better than the F-18 Hornet and F-18 Super Hornet. The Su-33 is a pure Air Superiority Fighter. Not only that, its huge fuselage shape and large size make the weapon mountability and take-off weight significantly better than the Super Hornet and the J-15.
The J-35 is developed from the J-31 “Falcon Hawk”, the aircraft has gone through multiple improvements. The J-35 design looks similar to the F-35 and the F-22. The closest to the J-35 is the American F-22 fighter in terms of design and capabilities, although there is no doubt that the F-22 is far more advanced and better than this Chinese Fighter. The aerodynamic layout of these two aircrafts is somewhat similar, and the tasks performed are relatively similar, both of which are fighters that are designed specifically to perform air superiority operations.
When the J-35 Stealth Fighter was first revealed, many military fans and military experts commented that the People’s Liberation Army Navy can also make use of the J-20 Stealth Fighter for carrier based operations by developing a separate carrier-based version of the J-20. But in reality there are some problems here with this concept, first of all, the J-20 is an Air Force fighter. If China wants to operate it on aircraft carrier, there needs to be made a lot of improvements and heavy modifications in the aircraft to make it suitable for carrier based operations. This will also effect the production capacity of the Chengdu Aerospace Company, as their production capacity is limited.
Coming back to the J-35 and J-15 topic, the J-35 and J-15 both are air dominance fighters both are expected to serve together with the People’s Liberation Army Navy Aircraft Carrier Strike Groups in the upcoming decade. The Capabilities of the J-15 is limited but it has good mid-range and short-range air combat capabilities, it can also serve as a Fighter-bomber. Comparing these both Chinese Fighters with the two Multipurpose Carrier-Based Fighters currently in active service with the United States Navy, the United States Navy have a relatively high degree of task overlap due to the absence of a Pure Air Superiority Fighter in the Carrier Air Wing Fleet. The air superiority established in the F-14 Tomcat era is obviously inadequate in the F-35 and Super Hornet eras.
China’s ability to have a combination of two Carrier-Based Air Superiority Fighters is the result of the priorities given by the PLAN to air dominance missions. So why does the United States Navy does not possess a Pure Air Superiority Fighter? The answer of this question is in the past, in the designing phase of the Advanced Tactical Fighter, the United States once planned to turn the F-22 Raptor into a variable-sweep-wing aircraft (same like the F-14 Tomcat) and put it into service on the aircraft carriers, this aircraft was supposed to be known as the “Sea Raptor”.
However, Congress later rejected the plan for many reasons, and instead turned the Joint Strike Fighter Program into a common fighter for the three forces. The United States Navy was afterwards left with the F-18 Super Hornet and F-35C Lightning II Stealth Fighters, both of which are fighters designed to perform Multi-role operations. The Super Hornet is supposed to serve the United States Navy beyond 2050 and the F-35 beyond 2070.
Although the United States Navy is currently designing a fighter known as the F/A-XX, which is going to be a sixth-generation highly-advanced air superiority fighter, the F/A-XX will replace the Super Hornet in the U. S. Navy and complement the F-35C for the next decades.
Ultimately saying, the United States Navy will have to wait for at least 30 years more to be able to fill the gap left after the retirement of the Air Superiority Fighter F-14 Tomcat. The F/A-XX is supposed to enter service with the United States Navy in the late 2050s.