As we see CV-16 Liaoning class spend more time training in the ocean, one of the often asked question is the choice of air wing. Now, we know that China can build flankers on its own, whereas it would have to purchase Mig-29K from Russia, so it would’ve been very unlikely that China would go with Mig-29K. The hypothetical question is what if China had the choice of building both Su-33 and Mig-29K, would it have taken Mig-29K over Su-33? Or more realistically, why did naval flankers get picked over naval J-10? After all, both India and Russia have now picked Mig-29K as their naval fighter.
Back in the late 80s and early 90s, China was looking to modernize its air force by purchasing a 4th generation aircraft from Soviet Union. At that time, everyone thought China was going to purchase Mig-29, since it had only operated Mikoyan fighter jets in the past and Mig-29 was the aircraft that Soviet Union exported. In fact, Su-27s had never been exported before then. Against all odds, PLAAF picked Su-27 over Mig-29 due to its longer range and greater potential as a heavy fighter jet. Up to that point, China really was not capable of designing its own heavy fighter jet like Su-27. J-10, the winning design of China’s own 4th generation competition, is a single engine fighter jet (between the size of J-7 and J-8). As part of the deal for ToT and local production of Su-27, China got pretty much all it needed to eventually indigenize flankers. Russia was a lot more willing to sell off its technology back at that time. As seen with India’s involvement in the PAK-FA project, Russia is now a lot more stingy when it comes to sharing its core technology. The effect of the J-11 deal can be seen today. Shenyang AC is now producing J-11B along with J-15 and J-16. You can even see the effect of J-11 on J-20 (SAC helped with that part of design). Just as importantly, it changed PLAAF’s doctrine from one of air denial to one of air superiority. As we can see with J-20 and J-31, PLAAF has made the decision to go with larger hi-lo fighter jet combination for the next generation. Outside of the obvious advantages like range/patrol time/multi-role capability, I’ve read that PLAAF believes that it can only make up for its technology gap vs Western fighter jets like F-35 by producing larger, more powerful aircraft.
There was a competition between J-10 and J-11 as the first generation naval fighter, but J-11 won due to the aforementioned advantages. I would think that the second generation naval fighter will likely be a heavy fighter too. Operating off a stobar carrier like Varyag, there will be limitations to J-15 take-off profiles. So far, we’ve seen J-15s with 2 SR-AAMs and 2 LR-AAMs, 2 SR-AAMs and 2 AShMs, 2 SR-AAMs and bombs. We’ve even seen J-15 just carrying buddy refueling pod. None of these profiles come close to approaching the limits of what’s possible from CV-16. With no headwind, Su-33 can take off from the first and second take-off locations on Adm K class with 28 ton. It can also take off from the third take-off location with 32 ton. It’s likely that as they get more experience, we will see more weapons carried on J-15. Based on what we’ve seen from typical PLAAF photos, the stobar limitations probably won’t affect J-15 that much. We rarely see J-11B with more than 6 AAM (4 LR + 2 SR) and J-10 with more than 4 AAM (2 LR + 2 SR). Those are quite achievable off all 3 take-off spots on CV-16.