Beijing is revealing pictures of its Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark design that is intended to populate the decks of its first aircraft carrier.

The J-15 is based on the J-11B, Shenyang’s unlicensed and indigenously adapted version of the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, and resembles its Russian equivalent, the Su-33 shipboard version, with a foreplane, folding wings, arrester hook and reinforced landing gear. Like the Su-33, the J-15 is designed to take off from a ski jump rather than a catapult. There are some differences from the Su-33, including more complex trailing-edge flaps and advanced Chinese avionics.

The unlicensed adaptation has been a source of friction with Moscow, says Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace with London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The J-15’s canards replicate those on the Su-33, indicating its flight control system is at least similar, Barrie says. Moreover, “a mock-up of the J-15 was seen carrying a dummy anti-ship missile, suggesting the J-15 may be intended to have a strike role from the outset, while the Su-33 was an air-to-air design.”

The heavy shipborne fighter will be yet another piece in the foundation of a ship-based force that can project power at sea, far from China’s shore defenses. They are expected to be first based on the former Russian Varyag aircraft carrier. The first pictures were taken at Shenyang Aircraft Industry Corp.’s No. 112 factory.

The design features exterior missile rails and a wide-angle holographic head-up display similar to those on the company’s J-11 fighter.

There are competing claims about the aircraft’s capability. Russian’s Ria Novosti news service called it inferior to the Su-33, but Chinese officials say the Su-33’s avionics are obsolete, so they have installed locally made sensors, displays and weaponry.

While based structurally on the Su-33, the aircraft features avionics — including an advanced anti-ship radar — from the J-11B program. Deployment is expected no earlier than 2016.

Analysts and aircraft watchers in China say the aircraft’s first flight was made on Aug. 31, 2009, powered by a Russian-supplied AL-31. Ukraine is the source of China’s Su-33/Flanker D, U.S. analysts agree.

“Russia’s carrier training is done in Ukraine at Saki, and for years there was one of the first prototype Su-33s sitting there,” one of the analysts says. “It disappeared a few years ago and likely ended up in China. The most recent photos of the J-15 show that they are either already entering low-rate initial production or close to it. I expect these [LRIP aircraft] to move to the training facilities soon and begin the long road to carrier qualification.”

The first takeoff from a simulated ski jump was conducted on May 6, 2010.

The program began after a Su-33 prototype was acquired from Ukraine in 2001. China offered to buy Su-33s from Russia as recently as 2009.

A Ukrainian court convicted a Russian man in February of conspiring to give the Chinese details of a Crimean air base that had been used to train Su-33 pilots to take off from a carrier’s ski jump ramp, according to the New York Times.

In Huludao, a navy installation on China’s northeast coast, workers are said to have built a rough clone of the Crimea test center, complete with a ski ramp for short takeoffs.

“There are lots of photos of a [dry, ground-based] carrier training facility that has a static flight deck for crew training,” the U.S. analyst says. “The facility is shaped like a carrier, with the dormitories and classrooms below the flight deck. It already has both a Flanker mock-up and a helicopter [onboard] to qualify deck and maintenance crews for carrier operations. Another facility at Xian has the ski jump for carrier takeoffs and the arresting gear network for landings. We expect to see these J-15s do a lot of work there.”

Taiwan intelligence officials say the aircraft carrier — thought to be slated for a training role — could make its first voyage by the end of the year.

The warship has been docked in China’s eastern Dalian harbor, where it has undergone extensive refurbishing since 2002.

“The carrier is also interesting in that it appears to be fitted with a close-in [Club-type cruise missile] weapons system,” Barrie says.

U.S. intelligence analysts agree with the Taiwanese officials. “Just last month we started seeing the powerplants firing up, showing they are getting really close to going to sea trials sometime this year, [perhaps] as soon as this summer,” the U.S. analyst says. “They’ve also discussed a second carrier [indigenously built] using the knowledge gained from their work on the one they bought from the Russians.”