So, for my first proper entry after the last six month hiatus, I will be talking about recent rumours of a successful test of the J-15A catapult compatible fighter from an Electromagnetic (EM) catapult. This is thought to likely have occurred at the Huangdicun facility.
A briefer on Huangdicun
For the uninitiated, Huangdicun is the Chinese Navy’s primary and first Naval Air Training Facility (NATF), located close to the city of Huludao in Liaoning province. This NATF features multiple ski jump facilities and carrier landing strips with arrestor gear, intended to train Naval Aviation pilots for carrier aviation. Huangdicun NATF was first visible via satellite imagery as a military airbase in May 2010, where one year prior that tract of land was empty, and later photos on the ground and from satellite demonstrated STOBAR carrier launch and recovery equipment coinciding with the ramp-up of the Chinese Navy’s carrier aviation with the commissioning of CV-16 Liaoning. Therefore, Huangdicun was judged as a Chinese equivalent of the Russian/Ukrainian/Soviet NITKA facility, and can be considered similar to a combination of the US Navy’s Lakehurst Joint Base/Naval Air Engineering Station and Pensacola Naval Air Station.
However, consistent and credible rumours prior in the late 2000s and early 2010s indicated various Chinese Navy affiliated research institutions were conducting advanced development and testing of aircraft carrier catapult systems, including a steam catapult design as well as a EM catapult design, by separate teams. Combined with the Chinese Navy’s own carrier plans that have gradually become clearer over that time, Chinese military watchers began to ask, when would these catapults launch their first aircraft on land? After all, such tests would be expected to verify the performance of the catapults prior to installation aboard a carrier.
Some information emerged in late 2015 suggesting that the Navy would conduct a catapult “competition” between the steam catapult and EM catapult, and satellite pictures emerged around the same time (September, 2015) seeming to indicate two distinctively different catapult trenches being constructed as well as an extension of the airstrip on the border.
Since then, progressive satellite image updates have shown further consolidation of construction of the two suspected catapults, with roofing cover over the catapult trenches to support assembly of the catapults seen in by June 2016, suggesting late stages of construction had been reached.
Finally, recent astonishingly high quality satellite photos of Huangdicun taken in October 2016, seem to show construction of both catapults appear to have been completed, with jet blast deflectors (JBDs) both installed and finishing touches including hazard lines and deadweight trolley support tracts extending beyond the catapults finished as well. It is also obvious to observe the differing geometry and length of the two respective catapults now that they are complete. Note, these pictures only emerged after the recent rumours of a successful J-15A test from the EM catapult a few days ago in early November, therefore such an event definitely looks plausible.
Of course, one of the biggest questions about the Huangdicun catapults is their identity. The consensus, based on past tracking of other suspected catapult test sites around China over the last few years, as well as credible rumours, suggests that the “longer” and “narrower” catapult trench is the steam catapult while the “shorter” and “wider” catapult trench is the EM catapult.
To those who wish to investigate the facility themselves, the coordinates of Huangdicun NATF are 40°29’53.53″N 120°39’50.40″E.
Update, 9th November: a photo taken from October 17th appears to show a J-15 (likely J-15A) in position behind the two catapults. It appears increasingly likely that it a J-15A could have been successfully launched from the EM catapult recently.
Of course, a catapult is irrelevant if there are no aircraft for it to launch, and the original J-15s and the current operational J-15s are only capable of ski jump launches, and lack the reinforced nose gear and attachment gear means the aircraft will not be capable of attaching to catapult shuttles and launching. This is not to mention the lack of likely horizontal reinforcement to accommodate the airframe strain from a catapult launch.
This information was already deduced by some Chinese military watchers before the J-15 even entered service and it was predicted that a logical next development would be a catapult compatible J-15. Credible rumours of a catapult compatible J-15 then emerged in 2014-2015. In mid 2016, rumours emerged that a catapult compatible J-15 made its maiden flight, and was variously described as J-15A or J-15T, and later photos emerged of the aircraft from various angles showing a reinforced nose landing gear and a launch bar, distinctive for aircraft meant to be launched from catapults.
Now, the most recent rumours have indicated that a J-15A has been successfully tested from an EM catapult, which likely occurred at Huangdicun NATF, which is plausible given the state of completion of both catapults as of mid October.
The emergence of the J-15A presents several important developments. First, is that the J-15A will likely be equipped with improved mission avionics such as cockpit, datalinks and radar. Second, if J-15A eventually replaces the STOBAR J-15 in production in the foreseeable future, then it would likely suggest that the Chinese Navy wisely recognizes the catapult compatible J-15A can also be fielded aboard a STOBAR carrier, whereas the STOBAR J-15 cannot be fielded aboard a CATOBAR carrier, therefore it makes sense to form an increased number of J-15 fighters around a core of J-15A would allow the Navy to improve the flexibility of its carrier compatible fleet.
So what does this mean for the Chinese Navy’s future carriers?
It is essentially accepted that the second domestic carrier, sometimes called the 002 class or CV-18, will be a CATOBAR (catapult assisted take off but arrested recover) type carrier that will be conventionally powered, with a full displacement of around 80,000 tons.
What is unknown is whether the first 002 class carrier will use steam catapults or EM catapults. Previous to 2015, the consensus existed that political conservatism led the Navy to decide on steam catapults, which were supposedly judged to be more mature than the EM catapult. However, with the recent rumours of the Navy’s catapult competition and the evidence of two catapult construction at Huangdicun, it is now thought that the first 002’s catapult status is far from settled, though there are suggestions that politics might cause the Navy to choose the more conservative option; the steam catapult.
But this variability presents some strange consequences for what we currently know about 002. There have been consistent and credible rumours that 002’s construction will begin in 2017 at Jiangnan Changxing shipyard, likely with steel cutting, yet this would be a slightly strange decision to make, prior to a confirmation for 002’s catapult status. Most importantly, the question of internal subsystems and powerplant in particular will present constraints and limits for the kind of catapult a carrier can be equipped with, after all steam turbine versus gas turbine versus diesel, versus mixed, arranged in a conventional or various types of electric propulsion will all present limitations and opportunities for whether a carrier is capable of fielding steam or EM catapults. It is plausible that 002 may have been designed to allow for the insertion of either a steam or EM catapult later on in its construction (i.e.: after the Navy has made a decision on steam versus EM catapult).
The developmental status of the Huangdicun catapults are also under some scrutiny. Specifically, there have been some suggestions that the two catapults may be prototype units only, therefore we should expect a lengthy future development cycle going forwards. However, in this author’s opinion, such a stance would be inconsistent with the various rumours and semi-official disclosures by some officials and even military flag officers who have indicated that prototypes of both the steam and EM catapults had been developed many years ago and underwent substantial testing in the years prior to 2015, before the Navy decided to conduct a “competition” between the two catapults.
It is also important to note that the Chinese language rumours regarding the two catapults at Huangdicun have consistently described their purpose as a “competition” or “comparison,” and considering Huangdicun is also a training facility for the Navy (rather than merely a testing facility), it is immensely likely that both catapults at Huangdicun NATF are relatively mature products rather than untested prototypes. The purposes of the competition at Huangdicun will likely be to have the Navy verify relatively late stage developmental parameters such as Mean Cycles Between Critical Failures, verifying their compatibility with aircraft under a variety of configurations, and high frequency launches under attempts to simulate operational conditions and demands.
But whether or not the first 002 class carrier will use steam catapults or EM catapults, it is likely that in subsequent carriers will almost definitely use EM catapults rather than steam, given the confidence in the EM catapult espoused by Rear Admiral Ma, as well as the Chinese military’s overall forward looking nature to adopt new technologies. It is likely that the Chinese Navy’s eventual nuclear powered carriers that will probably emerge in the late 2020s to early 2030s, it will be equipped with EM catapults.
In the next few years, we will likely hear of increasing rumours and see increasing evidence of J-15A airframes produced and being launched from Huangdicun catapults. We will also likely see a fixed wing carrier based AEW&C aircraft emerge intended for catapult launched. Recent rumours have also suggested an EW/ECM variant of the J-15 has made its maiden flight in late October (likely derived from the J-16D which flew late last year), and it is likely that when pictures eventually emerge of this “J-15D,” it will also be equipped with the same nose gear as J-15A.
In late 2017 we will also likely begin to see visible construction of the first 002 class carrier emerge with the first modules being assembled at JNCX (similar to April/May 2015 for the 001A class carrier at Dalian shipyard). Other relevant tidbits to observe will be continued construction of escorts including the 052D destroyer, the 055 large destroyer and 054A frigates and the expected 054B next generation frigate.
Expect these pieces of the Chinese Navy’s future carrier capabilities to begin to fall into place in the next few years.