Models of FC-31 fighter and a PL-15E missile were on display at Airshow China 2021 in Zhuhai. Credit: Global Times photo.

Speaker after speaker at the recent 2021 Air, Space & Cyber Conference, expressed the same urgency — a desire to accelerate modernization to deter Beijing’s rapidly growing military strength and aggression.

But perhaps Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said it best when he remarked to an audience of USAF brass, that his top priorities were, “in order … are China, China, and China.”

There is good reason for that concern.

The Chinese air force is already “at parity … in key areas” with the US Air Force, and in a few important areas the US is clearly “behind,” officials said at the event.

No doubt those concerns were raised even further when China displayed the export version of its new Leihua Electronic Research Institute (LETRI) PiLi, more commonly known as the PL-15, an uber-sophisticated long-range beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missile (AAM) at Airshow China in Zhuhai, The EurAsian Times reported.

The export variant, the PL-15E, which is currently in use by the People’s Liberation Army–Air Force (PLAAF), is an an upgrade of the PL-12.

Based on the Russian R-77, the PL-12 was developed specifically to counter the US AIM-120 AMRAAM. The miniaturized AMR-1 active seeker, a copy of the Russian 9B-1348 seeker on the R-77, was developed with help from AGAT Research Institute in Moscow.

The PL-15E has been redesigned with cropped main and tail control fins, with a smaller wingspan. This was done to fit into the internal weapons bay of the next generation J-20 “Mighty Dragon” and FC-31 fighters.

According to its manufacturer, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, the PL-15E “has the ability to attack manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, cruise missiles and other targets located more than 145 km [90 miles] away.”

The medium to long-range missile can travel at four times the speed of sound. It is powered by a dual pulse rocket motor and is equipped with a two-way datalink for dynamic retargeting in the air.

The missile’s active seeker uses an AESA aperture developed by No. 607 institute which has a narrow acquisition beam. The AESA gives the PL -15 robust Electronic Counter Counter Measures (EECM), a fact not ignored by US defense analysts.

Currently, the J-10C, J-16, and a few J-20s are armed with the PL-15.

The estimated range of the PL-15 is reportedly 200 kilometers with a large NEZ (no escape zone). The export variant has lower specs, however sources say it has a greater range than its US counterpart.

The PL-15E is guarded with a combination of inertial, satellite navigation, datalink, and radar. It can cover long-range and short-range air combat as well as surface attack.

What exactly is the PL-15’s opposite number?

Enter the Raytheon AIM-120 advanced medium-range AAM — a benchmark in missile technology. It is used by US Air Force, Navy, and the Marine Corps (USMC).

America’s first radar-guided line-of-sight AAM, it can cruise at speeds as high as 4 Mach, has an effective range of 110 kilometers and is powered by a solid-propellant rocket. The missile’s warhead is composed of a blast fragmentation high explosive.

Sources say China’s J-20 stealth fighter is getting a second seat, and improved, domestically produced jet engines. Credit: Handout.

F/A-18 Super Hornet C/D/E/F variants are armed with the AIM-120. In addition, F-15s, F-16s as well as F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters also carry this missile.

A comparative analysis of the range indicates a slight edge for the Chinese PL-15 — whether that is enough to “nullify” American air superiority, remains an open question.

Nonetheless, the PL-15 is the weapon of concern for the rest of the world, having an ability to match up to the long-range engagement envelope of the European MBDA Meteor and the Russian R-37M.

It outranges the USAF’s latest version of the AMRAAM, the AIM-120D; precisely the reason why Lockheed Martin has been urgently tasked to develop the AIM-260 and restore the balance back in favour of the USAF.

General Herbert Carlisle, head of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, told Flight Global that AIM-120 is of “exceedingly high priority.”

“Look at our adversaries and what they’re developing, things like the PL-15 and the range of that weapon. We’ve got to be able to out-stick that missile.”

A bigger long-term concern is that the PL-15 is 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.

Philippines-based South Asian airpower analyst Miguel Miranda told the EurAsian Times, “China’s state-owned companies in its military-industrial complex are able to mass-produce what is perhaps the largest assortment of air-to-air munitions ever.

“Among them are the PL-15 and its variants. But we must understand these missiles are only as effective as the aircraft and their pilots.

“In this regard, the most potent threat to US airpower in the Indo-Pacific is China’s most advanced strike aircraft: the J-20, the J-16, and the carrier-based J-15, as well as the J-11 and Su-30MK’s supplied by Russia,” added the analyst.

“For now, the US Navy and Marine Corps enjoy a numerical advantage in terms of surface vessels and aircraft against China’s Navy.

“But this will mean little when Chinese anti-access/area-denial weapons (road-mobile ballistic and cruise missiles) have blocked 500-1,000 miles of open sea between China’s coastline and the Pacific Ocean.”

If China maintains its production rate for fourth and 4.5 generation aircraft and introduces new stealth fighters by the mid-2020s, the balance in the air will shift to China, the Filipino defense analyst claimed.

“Even more so when it has so many new drones, subsonic and supersonic, to give the PLAAF and PLAN better situational awareness over the first island chain.”

He went on to say, “As for the hypothetical battles involving PLAN/PLAAF fighters armed with PL-15’s, a particular threat they pose is to the US Navy’s limited AEW&C assets and even carrier-based rotorcraft and UAVs.

“If this happens, the crucial linkages that support US Navy airpower are neutralized leaving the strike aircraft vulnerable. This is besides the fact that the same Chinese J-20s and J-16s can also launch cruise missiles at US Navy carrier strike groups.

“Yes, the stakes are quite high,” the analyst concluded.

Sources: The Eurasian Times, Air Force Magazine, The Print, National Interest