From MiG-19 with lift fans to J-18: China’s VTOL fighter jet problem
China’s ambition to become a global power rests on rivaling the United States – as well as the entire NATO – in every aspect of its military strength. Naval aviation is an important part of that, as it has both practical application and the symbolic power, allowing for a projection of military strength far beyond the country's borders.
In recent years China poured large sums of money into the development of its naval forces, commissioning the first domestically-built aircraft carrier, and planning to build several more. It is on track to eventually introduce Type 004 nuclear-powered carriers and the Shenyang FC-31 fifth-generation carrier-borne fighter jets that could rival US’ Gerald R. Ford-class supercarriers with their Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs.
But even then there would be one niche where China is sorely lacking: the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) or short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) planes, commonly known as jump jets. Those are fixed-wing aircraft capable of taking either vertically or from very short runways, a feature that allows them to be deployed on small ships or islands too short for a regular runway.
This class of aircraft is very rare and extremely difficult to develop. While many countries had programs to build fighter jets or strike aircraft capable of VTOL, only a handful of those attempts succeeded. The Hawker Harrier family of aircraft, used by British, American and a dozen of other armed forces, has been used extensively since the late 60s. In response, the Soviet Union developed the Yakovlev Yak-38, which was moderately successful, but did not last past 1991. Currently, the F-35B is being widely adopted, replacing older Harriers on British and American ships.
Both the Harrier and the F-35B marry the firepower, the speed and the range of a conventional fighter jet with the mobility of a helicopter. They can be operated from amphibious assault ships providing air support and air defense to assaulting troops; they can even take off from modified cargo ships – a tactic tested by many different countries, and employed by the UK in the Falklands war.
If China wants to have similar capability, it has to procure its own VTOL or STOVL jets. It is a task the country's military command understands too well, leading to almost half a century of attempts.
The earliest ideas of Chinese VTOL jets date back to the late 60s, with several proposals known as the Project No. 6 at Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute. Very little information about them is available, although at least one proposal got some international attention – mostly for its audacity, rather than effectiveness.
It was a project of a VTOL jet based on the Shenyang J-6, a Chinese version of the MiG-19. Its essence was to add four lift fans, possibly retractable, possibly with their own engines, attached in pairs at the front and the back of the aircraft. How such a contraption would work remains a mystery, yet the proposal seemed significant enough to be depicted on a wall at Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute, where it remains to this day.
By the time the Project No. 6 stalled, China was already turning its head to the West, with hopes to use Western equipment in its ambitious modernization program. Negotiations to buy up to 200 Harriers from Great Britain started in 1972 and continued through the 70s with variable success, as the US and the USSR tried to convince the UK to abort the sale. Both superpowers saw Harrier-armed China as a threat, due to the danger such a capability would pose to Taiwan, as well as border areas following Sino-Soviet clashes in 1969.
Eventually the talks stalled due to numerous political reasons. In the 80s China abandoned the idea of buying arms from the West, and turned to domestic fighter jet development. As far as it is possible to tell, VTOL ideas were not looked into, with conventional – and less ambitious – projects taking the lead.
Recognizing the need
The situation changed in the 2000s. By that time China had a successful military aircraft industry, working on domestic airplanes and helicopters. By 2009, a prototype of the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-based fighter jet was acquired, tested and reverse-engineered into the Shenyang J-15, currently used on all Chinese aircraft carriers.
Unbeknown in the West, China was working on its 5th generation fighter jets for some time already. So, when the Chengdu J-20 was revealed in 2010, followed by Shenyang FC-31 two years later, it seemed like China’s fighter jet manufacturing was on a streak.
Approximately at the same time Chinese bloggers started circulating the rumors that the next Chinese jet is going to have VTOL capability. The name Jianjiji J-18 first appeared in April 2011, accompanied by a flurry of images that usually had nothing to do with each other. By some accounts, the J-18 was a VTOL version of the J-15 (quite an absurd idea, to be frank); by other accounts, it was a completely new 5th generation stealth jet. Some said the prototype of the plane was already tested, others claimed it is going to fly in several years.
The story repeated itself two years later with the Jianjiji J-19 – a VTOL version of the J-20 or a similar heavy fighter, which was supposedly revealed in 2013, but lived only in the form of a rumor, and some images with badly-photoshopped versions of the F-35, the Yak-141 or the YF-23.
There is a high chance the whole story with the J-18 and the J-19 was a misinformation campaign initiated in the light of Taiwan beginning talks of acquiring F-35Bs. It also could have been fueled by the misunderstanding of the role of the J-15, or the FC-31, or the J-20. Whatever it was, there was neither an official confirmation, nor any concrete information regarding any real Chinese VTOL aircraft.
Once again, the situation changed in 2019. Global Times, a strictly-nationalist Chinese tabloid with a tendency of being a mouthpiece of the Communist party, published a peculiar story centered on the country's lack of VTOL aircraft. The publication quoted unnamed experts who claimed that People's Liberation Army (PLA) is in need of STOVLplanes that could operate from its amphibious assault ships and future aircraft carriers.
The reason for such a statement was clear: multiple NATO countries had this capability already; Japan was modifying its Izumo-class helicopter destroyers to carry the F-35B; Taiwan’s ambition of acquiring the F-35, although not yet realized, did not subside.
Jealousy aside, a VTOL or STOVL jet would indeed massively increase the capability of the Chinese navy, making any helicopter carrier, assault ship or even an ex-Soviet aircraft carrier-turned-theme-park capable of launching an air strike. But as the Global Times noted, the development of such an aircraft, even with all the Chinese industry and ingenuity, will take some time.
On the one hand, such a stance put an end to the rumors about the J-18 and the J-19. On the other hand, it revealed that China is almost certainly, once again, working on a VSTOL aircraft, with a clear intention to operate this type in the future. Nevertheless, that future is – at least so far – quite a far one, and the PLA will have to patiently wait.
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