The Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon impresses at the 2018 Zhuhai Airshow. Credit: File photo.

For military analysts, the nagging question remains — can a J-20 shoot down an F-35 or an F-22? Would it be a fair, even fight, or would it lean toward US technology and training?

Many would say the latter, but some remain in doubt.

The Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon, China’s flagship fifth-generation stealth fighter, left a lasting impression at the 2018 Zuhai Airshow, a carefully choreographed showcase for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

And while it impressed with a series of rolls and climbs that revealed its maneuverability, it was its weapons system that mostly carried the day, reports Mark Episkopos of The National Interest.

During the performance, the J-20 opened its missile bay doors to reveal four shiny new PL-15 missiles accompanied by two PL-10 missiles on either side.

Outfitted with an active electronically scanned radar and featuring a reported maximum range of 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, National Interest reported.

The PL-15’s effective range is certain to be lower than 300 km, but is nonetheless much higher than its American AIM-120 AMRAAM counterpart’s estimated 180 km or less.

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.”

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 — for now. The challenge of the PL-15 comes on the heels of questions about the uncertain future of the aging AMRAAM system, National Interest reported.

The J-20’s two side-mounted PL-10 missiles, while less conspicuous, 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 (HMD). In other words, they 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 US sold to Taiwan, National Interest reported.

There is still no reliable information on the PL-10’s range, but it is expected to at least match AIM-9X’s reported maximum of 20-22 km.

Performance differences aside, a bigger long-term concern is that the PL-10 and PL-15 are reportedly built with the latest anti-jamming technology at a time when the AIM- 9X and AIM-120D are perceived as increasingly vulnerable to modern digital radio frequency memory (DRFM) jamming techniques.

According to the South China Morning Post, China is thought to have built about 50 J-20s as of 2019 — churning out about one a month — but problems with the jets’ engines delayed production plans.

Chinese engineers have been developing high-thrust turbofan WS-15 engines for the J-20, but that work has reportedly fallen behind schedule.

Meanwhile, according to Air Force Magazine, the USAF is developing a new air-to-air missile, dubbed the AIM-260, to counter the PL-15.

Brig. Gen. Anthony Genatempo said the service is working with Lockheed Martin, the Army, and the Navy to field the heavily classified Joint Advanced Tactical Missile in 2022.

“It has a range greater than AMRAAM, different capabilities onboard to go after that specific [next generation air-dominance] threat set, but certainly longer legs,” he said. “As I bring up JATM production, AMRAAM production is kind of going to start tailing off.”

The weapon is initially planned to fly in the F-22’s main weapons bay and on the Navy’s F/A-18, with the F-35 to follow. Flight tests will begin in 2021 and initial operational capability is slated for 2022, Genatempo said, adding the missile may feature advanced capabilities, like dual-mode seeker technology (radar and IR seekers).

Apparently, the new AIM-260s are so secretive, they required a US$6.5 million high-security storage vault at Hill AFB, The Drive reported.

Clearly, the Pentagon has finally come to terms with the fact that the AMRAAM is no longer the “longest stick” in the air-to-air fight and that its next missile needs to be guarded against espionage attempts, regardless of the cost.

“It is meant to be the next air-to-air air dominance weapon for our air-to-air fighters,” Genatempo said.

Until that day comes, the PL-15 presents a disturbing weapons gap to the Pentagon.

Quoting General Carlisle 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.”