J-16H China’s Next Carrier Based Fighter? World’s Most High Tech Flanker Derivative Could Join New Strike Groups

A number of reports since February have indicated that China may be developing a navalised variant of the J-16 heavyweight fighter compatible with its navy's new aircraft carriers - the first of which has made rapid progress towards completion and deploys electromagnetic catapult launch systems. 

Reports vary on when the J-16 first entered service in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force, claiming dates between 2013 and 2015, with the fighter being one of the first in the world to deploy an AESA radar. 

The J-16 is derived from the Su-27 Flanker airframe - the Soviet Air Force’s prime air superiority fighter - and is considered the most sophisticated variant of the Flanker in the world. Flankers are in production in both China and Russia, as well as under license in India, but the J-16 is the only Flanker variant developed with an AESA radar, stealth coatings, an AESA radar guided air to air missiles. 

These features have since been used to modernize older Flanker derivatives in Chinese service, for example, to improve the J-11B to the J-11BG standard, but have no equivalents among Russian models. The J-16 is also prized for its advanced electronics and avionics which leverage strengths in China’s industrial base. 

The aircraft is designed to be able to deploy very large PL-XX air to air missiles which reportedly have the world’s longest engagement range at over 500km - making them ideal for neutralizing targets such as enemy airborne early warning and control (AEW) aircraft and tankers. 

China’s PLA Navy currently deploys just two classes of fighter compatible with aircraft carriers including the J-15 Flying Shark - another Flanker derivative derived from the J-11B - and the JL-9G lightweight fighter/trainer derived from the old J-7. 

A navalised variant of the J-16, reportedly named J-16H, could succeed or serve alongside modernized variants of the J-15 in a complementary role. 

The usefulness of such an asset remains uncertain and depends largely on how capable new variants of the J-15 are and how many of the J-16’s next-generation technologies they have integrated. 

With the two airframes both being derived from the Flanker, however, the maintenance burden of diversifying the fleet to deploy both fighter classes will be relatively low. 

China’s upcoming carriers will be able to accommodate many more fighters than their predecessors, will use electromagnetic catapult launch systems (EMALS) to allow them to take off with more weapons and fuel, and will deploy AEW aircraft, electronic attack jets, and drones to support them - all features the country’s previous carriers lacked. 

Only the carrier USS Gerald Ford currently uses EMALS, which will give future Chinese carriers a very significant advantage over older generations of carriers such as the U.S. Navy’s ten Nimitz Class ships, which have older and much less efficient steam catapults, and British Queen Elizabeth and Japanese Izumo Class carriers which have no catapult systems whatsoever.

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