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Aircraft carrier Liaoning to finish upgrade, mockup of J-35 stealth fighter spotted on deck

A mockup of a stealth fighter jet, reportedly the J-35, was recently spotted on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Liaoning, prompting experts to say on Monday that China's next generation carrier-based fighter jet is not exclusive to the catapult-equipped carrier Fujian, but can also be used on ramp-equipped carriers Liaoning and Shandong. Photo gallery

by Nicola e Gabriele Iuvinale

After nearly a year of work, the scheduled maintenance and upgrade work on China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is near its end, Hong Kong-based news website reported on Sunday, attaching several photos taken by its reporter showing the recent status of the Liaoning in Dalian Shipyard, Northeast China's Liaoning Province.

Citing the photos, said that a full-scale model of a J-35 fighter jet, wrapped in waterproof cloth, appeared on the Liaoning's flight deck after the Spring Festival holidays, and had conducted deck movement and dispatch tests over the past few days.

It marked the debut of China's carrier-based fifth-generation stealth fighter jet on the Liaoning, following its first appearance on the Fujian, the report said, noting that the J-35 is expected to become a main aircraft of the Liaoning, the Shandong and the Fujian, as the carrier groups of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy will receive significant boosts in comprehensive combat capabilities.

One of the photos shows that little change has been made to the appearance of the aircraft carrier itself.

The carrier Liaoning started its scheduled maintenance and upgrade work on February 28, 2023, reported at the time.

Regular maintenance usually takes a few months to half a year, so a full year of maintenance is likely to have involved more complicated upgrades, including to the carrier's interior, like adding support for new aircraft and updating its command and control systems, given that no obvious changes can be seen from its appearance, experts told the Global Times on Monday.

It was previously unclear among observers if the J-35 will only operate on China's third aircraft carrier Fujian, which is China's first carrier equipped with electromagnetic catapults. Having a mockup of the J-35 on the flight deck of the Liaoning is an indication that the stealth fighter jet will likely also operate on the Liaoning, which uses a ski-jump ramp to assist aircraft takeoffs, and by extension, the Shandong, which also uses the ramp, experts said.

The photos by also show that a full-scale model of the J-15 was tested alongside the J-35 model on the Liaoning's flight deck.

Analysts said that the J-35 is expected to be responsible for seizing air superiority and penetrating hostile defenses, while the J-15 is expected to remain a vital part of carrier groups taking advantage of its large payload capacity, and carry out more anti-ship and attack roles.

Since the J-35 is a medium-sized aircraft, trading in some heavy J-15s can lead to having more J-35s on the carrier, analysts said.

The combination of the J-35 and the J-15 will greatly boost the Chinese carriers' capabilities, experts said, noting that the Liaoning, originally a training carrier refitted from the ex-Soviet Varyag, has now surpassed carriers from France, the UK, India and Japan in terms of comprehensive combat capabilities.

At a time when the US is reportedly deploying more aircraft carriers to China's doorstep, the PLA having more capable carriers of its own is important for balancing strategic power, protecting national sovereignty, security and development interests, as well as safeguarding regional peace and stability, experts said.

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