Bang! — you’re dead. Shot down in flames.
That’s how fast it happens in the air. One small advantage, can translate to winning … or losing.
We all know how people at the Pentagon like to worry, especially when it comes to China’s military buildup. Now, they have something new to worry about.
Back in 2018, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force made waves at the Zhuhai Airshow with the latest showing of their flagship fifth-generation stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon.
As is common with airshow coverage, large swaths of the ensuing commentary focused on the J-20’s handling and maneuverability as it performed a series of rolls and a climb.
But sharp-eyed military watchers noted what is perhaps the most significant aspect of the J-20’s Zhuhai showing: its weapons system, reports Mark Episkopos of The National Interest.
During the performance, the J-20 brazenly opened its missile bay doors to reveal four PL-15 missiles accompanied by two PL-10 missiles on either side.
The PL-15 is a long range air-to-air missile which was slated to enter service in 2018. Outfitted with an active electronically scanned radar and featuring a reported maximum range of up to 300 km, the PL-15’s impressive specifications place it in the ranks of the top air-to-air missiles along with the European Meteor missile and Russian K-37M.
So here is the problem. America’s highly touted fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter can’t shoot that far.
The PL-15’s effective range in actual aerial engagements is certain to be lower than the maximum range 300 km, but is nonetheless much higher than its American AIM-120 AMRAAM counterpart’s estimated 180 km or less. Like it or not, that represents a big missile gap.
American general Herbert Carlisle voiced serious concerns in 2015 when the development of the PL-15 entered the public knowledge: “Look at our adversaries and what they’re developing, things like the PL-15 and the range of that weapon.” General Carlisle raised the same issue in an interview with FlightGlobal: “The PL-15 and the range of that missile, we’ve got to be able to out-stick that missile.”
The American F-22 and F-35 fighters are now equipped with the latest AIM 120-D missiles, but a massive range deficit remains nonetheless. So much for US air superiority.
The challenge of the PL-15 comes on the heels of questions about the uncertain future of the aging AMRAAM system. As Captain James Stoneman put it to the National Interest: “Currently there is no program of record for a follow-on … we’ve probably close to maxing it out.” Development of the latest Block III iteration of the short range AIM-9X was cancelled, and Raytheon struggles with a necessary AMRAAM refresh.
The J-20’s two side-mounted PL-10 missiles, while less conspicuous than their long range counterpart, are a key factor in the J-20’s operational versatility. A short-range infrared air-to-air missile, the PL-10 can be fired at off boresight angles of 90 degrees using the J-20’s Helmet Mounted Display. In other words, the PL-10’s on the J-20 can be fired in the direction that the pilot points their head.
Off boresight targeting is by no means a new technology. In fact, the PL-10 is China’s response to the AIM-9X Block II Sidewinder short range missiles that the United States is selling to Taiwan.