Surviving the next-generation of Chinese air to air missiles – Part 1
By Dougal Robertson
This article appeared in the Jan-Feb 2020 issue of ADBR
The narrative surrounding the US defense budget in late 2019 and early 2020 has been telling. Service chiefs are demonstrating an open willingness to trade near-term projects for longer-term capability development, in a move that looks set to better prepare the US military for high-end warfighting.
The cancellation or pausing of programs for airframes designed to fly in uncontested skies came as no surprise for those following the debate around the future role of the US military. The Pentagon is making no secret of its intent to fight an expansive, multi-domain war against a conventional adversary. It needs Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft that can survive against hostile fighter aircraft – and lots of them.
This re-tooling of US air power has real and significant outcomes for the ADF, in dollars and in tactics, training and procedures (TTPs).
But how significant is the counter-air threat the US is preparing to deter and defeat?
Internet photographs of the Chinese PLA’s Very Long-Range Air to Air Missile (VLRAAM) first appeared in 2016. Speculation began that the missile – referred to as ‘PL-X’ – might be capable of ranges up to 300 nautical miles (550km).
Media commentators and bloggers correlated the PL-X with research papers showing VLRAAM performance based on a lofted launch to over 100,000ft, SATNAV and datalink updates in midcourse phase, then a dive in terminal phase at hypersonic speeds. One paper illustrated the intended target set: key USAF force enablers such as the E-3 AEW&C, tankers and potentially F-22 and B-2 stealth aircraft whose top-down planform shape would be visible from the missile’s look down angle in the thermosphere.
Clearly, the PLA was changing the game. The VLRAAM would force US and Allied high-value airborne asset (HVAA) aircraft to operate much farther from any battlespace, potentially negating advantages in airborne early warning and control. The concept is identical to the Russian R-37M (designated AA-13 Axehead by NATO) supersonic missile program dating back to the 1980s, but this time it was fully funded and developed.
The stage-managed introduction of the PL-X came after internet pictures of the new PL-15 started appearing in 2012. The size of the PL-15 missile was revealing – small enough to fit inside the weapons bay of the new J-20 stealth interceptor, but large enough to pack a dual-pulse motor and an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar seeker.
The PL-15’s range put it in a similar or better class than the new US AIM-120D AMRAAM. The USAF Air Combat Command Chief GEN Herbert ‘Hawk’ Carlisle said in 2015 that outmatching the PL-15 was “an exceedingly high priority” and that “we’ve got to be able to out-stick that missile”.
All bases covered
While the outline of the PLA air-to-air weapons program has been public knowledge since at least 2010, what is astonishing is the number and spread of the weapons in development.
The PLA radar-guided AAM programs began in earnest in the early 90s, when the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (AVIC) 607 Institute (officially known as the Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute – LETRI) began testing an active radar-guided missile. The PL-12 used elements of Russian technology, including the 9B-1348 seeker from the AGAT Research Institute and possibly the one-way datalink from the R-77 RVV-AE (NATO codename AA-12 Adder) missile from Vympel (now the Tactical Missiles Corporation Joint Stock Company).
After the PLA certified the PL-12 in 2005 at least four PL-12 upgrade or follow-on programs were identified, including an upgraded PL-12B, a PL-12C with folding fins, and a PL-12D using a ramjet motor. In addition, there was an anti-radiation export variant known as LD-10. The PL-12C was later identified as the PL-15, designed to fit in the internal weapons bay of the J-20 and with a claimed range of more than 100nm (185km).
The PL-12D may have become the PL-20, a 200nm (375km) range weapon based on a combined ramjet and solid motor (alternately there may be two PLA ramjet-based AAM programs) and referred to as the ‘Sino-Meteor’ in reference to the MBDA Meteor ramjet AAM. Then there is the PL-X, possibly designated the PL-17, a 300nm (550km) ramjet-based weapon with a dual-mode seeker and ballistic trajectory.
Like its growing ground-launched anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities, the PLA air-to-air missile complex is built on concentric range rings. This reflects the PLA’s plan to build an integrated air defence system, where aircraft and surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries cooperate to prevent US and Allied forces getting close to sensitive territories or being able to launch stand-off weapons.
At the outer ring are the anti-access weapons such as the PL-X that can target US and Allied tankers and AEW&C aircraft. Then comes the PL-15, probably designed to target counter-air fighters like the F-22 and F-15C. Closer still comes the upgraded PL-12, effective to around 50nm (90km). The inner rings are based on area denial.
The system becomes increasingly capable and dense with the addition of multiple advanced SAMs such as the Russian-made S-400 (NATO codename SA-21 GROWLER) and the Chinese HQ-9 (NATO codename CSA-21). This combined PLA air defence system could deny vital targeting information to strike and fighter aircraft, target these aircraft as they approach their weapon launch baskets, then use the SAMs to shoot down incoming missiles and any aircraft that evade the PLA interceptors and fighters.
The Chinese system is defensive in nature, and is based on Soviet concepts of air defence that used long-range interceptors and fighters such as the MiG-31 FOXHOUND and Su-27S and Su-27P FLANKER variants as extensions of the SAM systems.
While the advantage of an integrated air defence system lies in the ability to provide persistence, mass and survivability by backing up fighter aircraft with the SAM systems, what is new is how far that air defence system can be extended.
The PLA air-to-air missile program may well already be a complete area denial system. This represents a big problem for the US and Allied nations because slow, non-stealthy airframes simply will not survive against an integrated air defence system. With the acquisition and integration of sophisticated airframes such as the F-35A, EA-18G Growler, and E-7 Wedgetail AEW&C, the ADF will at least be able to compete. This is especially so when they are considered as part of a broader architecture including the new Aegis-equipped Hobart class destroyer and planned Hunter class frigates.
In the next issue of ADBR, we will examine what the US and Allied nations are doing to counter the long-range AAM threat. When Hawk Carlisle spoke about having to “out-stick” the PL-15, he might have been referring to a complete change in the US approach to counter air – and that new approach may come as a surprise to most, and not least China and other competitors.
And while the air-to-air weapons systems themselves and the associated technology are often the focus of conversation, it is the innovation in the TTPs which provides lethality and potency.
Dougal Robertson is the senior Executive Analyst at Felix Defence, with extensive joint operational experience as an intelligence officer and instructor in the Australian Defence Force.