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China’s Emerging 5th Generation Air-to-Air Missiles

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on February 2nd, 2008
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Internet source imagery from January 4 has offered the first glimpses of what may be China’s emerging 5th generation air-to-air missiles (AAM).  One missile, called the PL-ASR or PL-10, shows a very close resemblance to the South African Denel A-Darter AAM.  A second image, discovered on a China’s Northwestern University web site in mid-December, shows another missile similar to the radar-guided South African Denel R-Darter, designed in cooperation with Israel.  Both of these missiles are likely designed for use with modern Helmet-Mounted Displays (HMD), which enable pilots to “look to kill” their targets.  But there is more: additional imagery suggests that a previously reported ramjet powered development of the Chinese Luoyang PL-12 active-radar guided AAM, called the PL-13, could give the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) an AAM that could out-range existing U.S. AAMs.[1] 

 
 
Luoyang PL-ASR/PL-10: This image obtained from Chinese web pages on January 4 was the first revelation of the existence of the advanced PL-10 5th generation AAM. The text indicates development began in 2004 and production is expected by 2010. The missile also has a 90 degree off-bore-sight view and a “Lock On After Launch” capability, meaning it can better exploit high off bore-sight firing. Source: CJDBY web page.

Data along with one image suggests the PL-10 could enter production in 2010 but it is not known when the other two new AAMs would enter production.  When they do enter service, these AAMs could give both old and new PLA Air Force fighters a decisive advantage over Taiwan Air Force fighters armed with shorter range U.S. AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles.  The PL-ASR/PL-10 could have up to double the range of the new U.S. AIM-9X, the first U.S. HMD sighted AAM, which is just now entering service with U.S. Air Force and Navy squadrons.  The ramjet powered “PL-13” may out-range current variants of the AIM-120. 

Absolute determination of AAM capabilities is greatly hampered by the efforts of governments and manufacturers to deny information, such as that regarding missile range and countermeasures, which would allow potential adversaries to gain an advantage.[2]   Furthermore, the utility of an AAM is also determined by many attributes of the carrying aircraft: its radar and electronic support systems, the availability of off-board sensor data, and the degree of training and experience of the launching pilot.  But there is little margin for error when considering a major factor such as weapons, especially when considering that China’s increasing numbers of competitive 4th generation combat aircraft may be followed by 5th generation combat aircraft early to mid-next decade. Absent a U.S. response, such as the purchase of more 5th generation fighters, the development of a new generation of AAMs, or even the purchase of more capable European AAMs, the air power balance in Asia could shift dangerously toward China. 

5th Generation Short Range Air to Air Missiles

Since the 1940s the progress of combat aircraft and their weapons have been measured in “generations.”  The latest 5th Generation combat aircraft, of which the U.S. Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor is the only one operational, are defined usually by their ability to combine the attributes of stealth, advanced electronically scanned (AESA) radar, and engines powerful enough to cruise supersonically without recourse to fuel-guzzling afterburners (super-cruise).  These capabilities give the F-22A the ability to detect and attack before being detected, and to evade new and deadly Russian surface-to-air missiles. But since their introduction in the 1970s, American, Russian and other manufacturers have been constantly upgrading their 4th generation fighters such as the Boeing F-15 Eagle and the Sukhoi Su-27/30 Flanker with ever more modern electronic systems and weapons.

In the 1980s Russia began the trend toward the 4th generation AAMs with the introduction of the Vympel R-73, the first thrust-vectored AAM with a 45-degree off-bore-sight view (90-degree field of view) infrared seeker, and the ability to be targeted with a helmet-mounted sight (HMS).  This gave Soviet-Russian fighters a decisive advantage over U.S. and European fighters: the Soviets could always launch their short-range AAMs first as they did not have to orient or “dogfight” their fighter, but merely needed to “look” at the target to direct the R-73 AAM.  This technology has evolved into a 5th generation defined by the inclusion of more sensitive imaging-infrared seekers that home in on a specific part of the target aircraft; seekers with wider 90-degree off-bore-sight view(180-degree fields of view); seekers that incorporate advanced anti-jamming and anti-decoy technology; and those which use more advanced helmet-mounted displays.   Examples of 5th generation infrared guided AAMs include the British ASRAAM, German IRIS-T, Israeli Python-5, Japanese AAM-5, U.S. AIM-9X, the improved Vympel R-73 and the South African A-Darter.  Should a longer range 5th generation AAM like the Python-5 miss its target on the first pass, it usually has the range and agility to attack once more.

 
 
MBDA’s Modern AAMs: The ASRAAM short-range and Meteor long-range AAMs seen at the recent Dubai Airshow. Source: RD Fisher

While first generation short range infrared guided AAM relied on the pilot to find and maneuver to attack an often rapidly moving target, 4th and 5th generation short-range AAMs rely on aircraft sensors and advanced helmet mounted displays to target these latest AAMs which usually have much greater range than a pilot’s sight.  In the 1980s, in addition to using the aircraft’s radar, the Soviets introduced more sophisticated optical infrared search and tracking (IRST) systems, which allowed aircraft to turn off emitting radars which in turn could be targeted by opposing electronic sensors and jamming.  The Russian OLS-30 IRST used in late versions of Sukhoi fighters, and Shenyang co-produced Su-27/J-11 fighters, is reportedly able to passively search and track targets out to 50-90km.  While Russian IRSTs are reportedly not able to determine range, the Russians apparently network several fighter IRSTs and radar to find the range of targets, even stealthy targets.[3]  HMDs are able to collate data from radar, optical sensors, plus aircraft performance data onto the pilot’s helmet visor, allowing him to target distant threats without having to concentrate on cockpit instruments.  Israel’s DASH HMD became the basis for the U.S. Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) HMD, which support the AIM-9X AAM that in 2003 started entering service on U.S. F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 fighters. 

 

Active Radar-Guided AAMs

While the U.S. has lagged in the development of 5th generation HMD sighted AAMs, it has helped to lead the field in the development of medium range active-guided AAMs.  The Raytheon AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) began in 1975 leading to fielding in the early 1990s, while the Vympel R-77 program began in 1982 and first appeared in the early 1990s.  Both missiles sought to perfect the advancement of incorporating an active radar seeker to allow the AAM to guide itself autonomously for part of its flight.  Previous “semi-active” radar guided AAMs like the AIM-7 Sparrow and the Vympel R-27 required continuous “painting” by aircraft radar with constant radio signals to guide the missile until reaching its target. Active radar guided missiles like the AIM-120 and R-77 still require target location data from the launching aircraft, or more recently, from an off-board sensor like an AWACS aircraft, but after the missile’s active radar acquires the target the launching aircraft has the option to maneuver to safety or commence another attack. 

 
 
 
AIM-120D and R-77: The AIM-120D is the latest model of the AMRAAM due to enter service soon, whereas China may have purchased up to 1,000 of the Vympel R-77 AAM. Source: US Air Force and RD Fisher

The AIM-120, the Russian R-77 and the French MICA dominate the market for active-guided AAMs.  In this decade Japan, China and Taiwan have fielded active guided AAMs, with the latter two relying on imported technology.  All active-guided AAM makers have sought to improve their products with better seekers, some using satellite navigation guidance, enhanced electronic counter measures, the addition of data links to provide updated target location data, and better engines to enable longer range.  The U.S., Russia, Europe, South Africa, and perhaps more recently China, have developed ramjet engine powered AAMs to achieve longer ranges without increasing missile size.  Ramjets also allow the missile to sustain its high speed over most of its range, which significantly expands the “no escape zone” or area within which a target will likely be killed. The only ramjet powered AAM soon to enter service is the MBDA Meteor, which advertises a 100+km range, and a constant Mach 4+ speed and a “no escape zone” three times that of early AIM-120 AAMs.[4]  More recently Russia has revived its very long range missile program with the Novator K-100 or K-172, which has been variously reported to have a 200km to 400km range.  The last U.S. very long range Hughes AIM-54C Phoenix, capable of reaching 150km, was retired from U.S. Navy service in 2004.  While the U.S. had two-stage and ramjet missile engine AAM test programs in the 1980s and 1990s,[5] it has chosen not to replace the long range AIM-54C. 

 

China’s Record of Foreign AAM Technology Reliance

Almost from the beginning the PLA has relied on foreign technology, whether from the United States, Russia, Israel and now South Africa, to develop ever more modern air-to-air missiles.   In September 1958 a U.S. AIM-9B Sidewinder short range air-to-air missile (AAM) was captured by China after it was fired by a Taiwanese F-86 Sabre fighter at a Chinese MiG-17, becoming lodged in the airframe without exploding.  At the time the AIM-9B was the most modern air-to-air missile anywhere and it was soon copied by the Soviet Union and China.  For the Soviets it became the K-13 (NATO: AA-2 Atol) and for China the PL-2 (PL meaning Thunderbolt).  During the Vietnam War China was able to obtain unexploded copies of more advanced AIM-9 missiles, which influenced the PL-5, as well as early version of the Raytheon AIM-7 Sparrow, which influence the radar-guided PL-11.  During the 1980s China obtained the French Matra 550, which was copied as the PL-7 and the Israeli Python-3, which was copied as the PL-8. 

From the 1990s to the present period the PLA has purchased thousands of modern Russian AAMs, including the Vympel R-73 short-range AAM, and multiple variants of the semi-active radar and infrared guided Vympel R-27 medium range AAM.  In addition the PLA has purchased about 1,000 of the more modern active radar guided Vympel R-77 medium range AAM.  These missiles almost exclusively arm Sukhoi/KnAAPO made Su-27SK/Su-30MKK/MKK2 fighters or the Shenyang Aircraft Co. co-produced version of the Su-27SK called the J-11, or J-11A.  It has been reported that some number of early purchase Su-27SKs and early J-11s were upgraded in order to be able to fire the R-77, whereas the Su-30s had this capability from delivery. 

Starting in the 1990s, as it did with other weapons purchases, the PLA decided to purchase the underlying technology of weapons systems or their components, so as to make weapon systems with increasing indigenous Chinese content.  By the mid 1990s China’s main missile maker Luoyang had developed the PL-9, which took the fuselage of the Python-3, attached different guidance fins, and incorporated a copy of the Ukrainian Arsenel helmet sight, called the TK-14 in Chinese service, to make a new AAM.[6]  The latest PL-9C features an increase in range to 22km, up from 15km for the PL-9, PL-8 and Python-3 AAMs.  One mystery has been why the PL-9 has not seen widespread usage in the PLA air forces.  From the 1996 Zhuhai show and at subsequent shows, Luoyang officials have noted to the author that the PLA was not interested in buying the PL-9, even though it has occasionally been seen on some fighters like the late model Chengdu J-7G. 

 
 
 
PL-9C and HMS: It is not clear that the PL-9C AAM with the TK-14 helmet sight is in widespread PLA service, an indication that the PLA was instead waiting for a more advanced short-range AAM. Source: RD Fisher

Perhaps a key reason for not purchasing the PL-9 has been the expectation that the PLA would be building an even better AAM.  At the 2002 Zhuhai Airshow Luoyang officials told this analyst and other reporters that the company was working on an advanced AAM.  The few details disclosed, such as advanced guidance, the use of thrust vectoring and helmet displays created a basis for speculation that Luoyang was interested in an AAM like the British ASRAAM. Despite the heavy reliance on purchased Russian short range AAMs like the R-73, the inspiration for Luoyang’s 5th generation AAM was to come from elsewhere.

Possible “South African” AAMs

At the 2002 Zhuhai Airshow South African firms set up a small booth and spoke of their desire to do business with the PLA but did not go into specifics.  At subsequent shows the South African presence grew larger and it is now clear that there have been several cooperative programs, including unmanned aircraft, air defense systems and air to air missiles.  While South African firms have said little about the latter, in 2004 Yihong Chang reported on PLA interest in purchasing the 5th generation Denel A-Darter AAM.[7]  The data revealed on January 4 indicated that development of the PL-10 started in 2004, which might track very well with the reported deepening of South African-PLA cooperation.  The few clear images of the PL-ASR/PL-10 show a near 95 percent similarity with the Denel A-Darter AAM.  The main differences are in the rear fin shape and configuration, but it is a relatively minor difference.  So it is possible to speculate that the PL-10 may very well have a performance similar to or better than the A-Darter, which would include use of advanced imaging infrared guidance and a maximum range of 20km or better.  The January 4 revelation indicates the seeker has a 90-degree off-bore-sight capability (180 degree field of view).  It also has a lock-on-after-launch capability, meaning it can be launched from a high off-bore-sight position and acquires the target, usually accomplished with the aid of a helmet sight or IRST. 

 
 
 
PL-10 and A-Darter: This comparison shows the basic similarity between the Denel A-Darter (top) and the Luoyang PL-10. Source: CJDBY and Internet

This missile could arm most PLA fighters equipped with an IRST, even a short range radar but also with computers capable of processing for the helmet mounted display.  This would likely initially include J-10 and J-11B fighters, but then older J-11As, and then late model J-8II and J-7 fighters. 

New Type AAM

The revelation of PL-10 imagery with the clear implication of South African technical participation also provides possible insights into another AAM found on a Chinese university website in mid-December 2007.  This AAM has not yet been identified by any official or unofficial PLA source, but this single picture shows some similarity to the Denel radar-guided R-Darter, which is virtually the same missile as the Israeli Aircraft Industries Derby. The product of Israeli and South African cooperation during the 1980s and 1990s, the R-Darter has a light weight of 120kg and reported range of 63km.[8]  It appears that the R-Darter/Derby program intended to produce a very maneuverable but light-weight radar-guided AAM that could be back-fitted to advanced 3rd and 4th generation fighters.  R-Darter entered service with the South African Air Force but Derby has not yet entered service with the Israeli Air Force, though it is reportedly being used by the Singapore Air Force.

 
 
 
New Radar Guided AAM: Two new-type AAMs straddle a single PL-12 on a three-missile pylon on a JH-7A fighter bomber (top). This vague image was obtained from a Chinese university web site, and appears to show some similarity to the somewhat larger South African/Israeli R-Darter (bottom) radar-guided AAM. Source: Internet

The key similarity between the new PLA AAM and the R-Darter appears to be their shape and the possible inclusion of a small roll stabilization fins behind the front fins.  However, it also appears that this new missile is appreciably smaller than the R-Darter, perhaps weighing only about 100 to 110kgs.[9]  This would mean a shorter range, perhaps 20 to 30km.  It is not known whether this new AAM has a semi-active, active, or even a passive seeker.  One possibility may be a version of the new small 150mm seeker being marketed by Russia’s AGAT.[10] It is clear that the PLA intends to exploit this missile’s light weight, as its first public illustration shows two of the new missiles paired with a PL-12 on a single three-missile launch pylon.  This pylon configuration allows newer fighters such as the FC-1, J-10, J-11B and JH-7A to increase their beyond-visual-range AAM carriage capability.  This missile could also be intended to quickly upgrade the latest models of 3rd generation fighters like the Shenyang J-8IIF/H and the Chengdu J-7E/G with a lightweight radar guided AAM to complement the PL-10 infrared/imaging AAM. 

If these two new PLA AAMs were aided substantially by South Africa, then it would stand to reason that South Africa may have also provided key enabling technologies such as Helmet Mounted Display systems and data links.  Denel’s Archer HMD was developed to support the A-Darter and R-Darter and would likely have been sold to China along with the AAM technology.  China’s Luoyang group has also long commented, albeit cryptically, on its interest in developing HMD technology, with images of experimental HMDs appearing from time to time.  A new Luoyang HMD may benefit from indigenous and foreign technology.  A helmet mounted sight displayed by the Cigong Group at the 2004 Zhuhai show uses prominent light-emitting diodes to allow cockpit computers to track the position of the pilot’s head, in order to target weapons, the same system used by the Denel Archer HMD. 

 
 
 
Advanced Helmet Systems: The South African “Archer” helmet mounted display (top) uses light emitting diodes to track pilot head position in order to target weapons. The Cigong Group helmet sight seen a the 2004 Zhuhai show used a similar head tracking system. Any potential South African help with new PLA AAMs likely included the sale of advanced helmet display technology. Source: Denel and RD Fisher

PL-12 

Indicating a major advance in its AAM technology, in 2001 Chinese sources began revealing the first data on the Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute (LETRI) SD-10, later PL-12 active radar guided AAM.  It is likely that at about the same time that the PLA was negotiating to purchase the R-77, it was also pressing Russia’s missile concerns for technology to support an indigenous Chinese program.  Russia’s missile radar maker AGAT reportedly sold China drawings of the 9B-1103M radar for the active-guided version of the R-27 AAM.  But China presumably also gained insights from the AGAT 9B-1348 radar on the R-77.[11]  The PL-12 also reportedly has a “passive” seeking mode that would allow it to home in on an emitting target, such as a jamming or AWACs radar aircraft.[12]  However, the SD-10 uses a Chinese-made missile motor, which when combined with a “lofted” flight profile, can achieve a maximum range of 70km, about 10km less than the R-77.  Nevertheless, in the PL-12 the PLA has a modern self-guided AAM that is in the same class as the U.S. AIM-120 and the Russian R-77.  In 2002 China revealed basic data about the SD-10 and began to display models of the missile at air-shows, such as Zhuhai in November 2002.  By 2005 to 2006 the PL-12 began to appear in photos of PLA fighters, especially the Chengdu J-10 and some versions of the Shenyang J-8II.  It has also been tested on the Shenyang J-11B, now in advanced development, and has been seen in at least on photo on a wing pylon of a Xian JH-7A fighter attack fighter. 

 
 
 
PL-12 In Service: The 70km range PL-12 active-guided radar is known equip some Shenyang J-8II fighters (top), all Chengdu J-10 fighters (bottom) and will in the future equip the Shenyang J-11B. Source: Chinese Internet

“PL-13”

Another surprise in the imagery made available on Chinese web pages on January 4 was a curious computer-generated depiction of a missile called the “PL-13.” However, it must be stressed that this is the first image of this missile and a definitive determination of its existence and performance must await further disclosures.  Arguing in favor of this program’s existence is the fact that its image appears with clear images of the PL-12 and the new PL-10, which would tend to lend credibility to the new missile depiction.  In addition, Luoyang was reported to have been interested in ramjet propulsion to develop the PL-12.[13]  This PL-13 image also points to the possibility that Vympel has sold China the technology needed to make such an AAM.  The PL-13 image appears to show a two-intake ramjet motor, a configuration that Vympel had come to prefer as it was developing its R-77M-PD, following early 1990s collaboration with France’s former MATRA Corporation.[14]  The ramjet intake shape on the PL-13 appears to conform to one known Vympel configuration.  Furthermore, the four cruciform fins at the front end of the PL-13 are also characteristic of other Vympel missiles like the R-27, and Vympel was also reportedly discarding the “grid” shape fins for conventional fins,[15] which also coincides with the PL-13 image.  Inasmuch as Russia apparently decided not to purchase the R-77M-PD, it is possible that Vympel was allowed to sell this missile technology to China.[16]  But it is also possible that South Africa was a source for some AAM ramjet engine technology, inasmuch as South Africa also had an unrealized program called the Long Range Air-to-Air Missile (LRAAM). 

 
 
First “PL-13” Image: This computer generated image appeared on the CJDBY website on January 4, 2008. While little is known about this missile the image’s credibility is supported by the inclusion of images of the PL-12 and the recently revealed PL-10. Source: CJDBY web site

If a real program, then the PL-13 would give the PLA a long-range AAM with considerable new capabilities.  The R-77M-PD was reported to have an estimated range of 160km and the PL-13 should be expected to do as well or better.  Furthermore, as it a ramjet powered missile, it is expected to sustain its high speed, likely about Mach 4 and greater, throughout its engagement, meaning that it has a substantial “no escape” zone, perhaps similar to that of the MBDA Meteor.  Should the PL-13 see a near-term introduction, the it will likely be used in conjunction with the PLA’s AWACS aircraft that can find distant targets and then pass targeting data to attacking aircraft, likely J-11B and J-10 fighter.  But the potential range of the PL-13 offers an indication that the PLA is also likely developing long-range radar for its 4th and 5th generation fighters, or may be interested in upgrading existing fighters with new longer range Russian radar.  Inasmuch as Vympel has been marketing passive guided versions of the R-27 and R-77, it is reasonable to speculate that a version of the PL-13 may feature a passive guidance system, to better enable long-range attacks against critical support aircraft like AWACS, electronic warfare and tanker aircraft.  The PL-13 could also form the basis for a future light-weight anti-radar or supersonic anti-ship missile.

 
 
 
PL-13 and R-77M-PD Compared: The ramjet intakes of the PL-13 (top) and the R-77M-PD (bottom) show a clear similarity, whereas the PL-13 adopts the two-intake configuration Vympel reportedly settled upon following early 1990s collaboration with France’s MATRA. Source: CJDBY and Internet

There is also the possibility that the PLA could purchase new Russian very long-range AAMs or develop similar AAMs themselves.  Inasmuch as the PLA is reportedly interested in purchasing some number of the new Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter, it may also purchase the unique weapons offered with this fighter, like the 300-400km range Novator K-100/172.  India may be interested in an advanced version of this missile capable of anti-missile intercepts.[17]  Asian military sources also note that China is developing a 400km range surface-to-air missile.[18]  If this new PLA SAM is based on Russian S-400 components, for which China is reportedly an investor, then this new SAM may be small enough to be developed into a very long-range AAM, perhaps even with future anti-missile intercept capabilities. 

 
 
Novator K-100/172: In development since the late Cold War, the latest version of the very long range Novator K-100 design was revealed at the 2007 Moscow Airshow. Source: Internet

Growing PLA Airpower, Growing Intimidation

After nearly 15 years of effort, by 2005 the PLA’s many investments in modern air combat capabilities began paying off.  The Chengdu J-10 4th generation fighter and the indigenous Xian JH-7A fighter-bomber were both entering production.  About a hundred or so of each have now been produced, each comprising about three to four operational units.  In recent months the JH-7 has been seen with new electronic warfare pods perhaps conferring a capability similar to the U.S. Northrop Grumman EA-6B.  By 2005 PLA Air Force and Naval Air Force had completed acceptance of 180+ Russian made Sukhoi Su-27 fighters and Su-30 attack fighters.  The Shenyang Aircraft Corporation had co-produced about 100 Su-27s as the J-11, and was making breakthroughs in its effort to absorb and “indigenize” the Su-27 as the J-11B fighter.  Furthermore, by 2005 the PLA had two types of phased array radar AWACS and a possible phased array radar ground mapping aircraft in advanced development,  The venerable Xian H-6 (Tu-16) bomber was also being upgraded into a more powerful land attack cruise missile and PGM carrier. While open data is very scant, U.S. and Chinese sources indicate that both Chengdu and Shenyang have 5th generation combat aircraft programs that could fly by the middle of the next decade, and both companies are likely developing a range of unmanned combat aircraft.  The first PLA Naval Air Force carrier wing may include modified J-11B or J-10 fighters, to be followed by a Chinese or Russian 5th generation naval fighter.

These hardware improvements have been accompanied by the development of new offensive and joint-force aerial doctrines, and increases in training time and training sophistication.  China’s leadership has also shown its willingness to use its Air Forces to intimidate Japan and Taiwan. Japan had to scramble fighters to intercept intruding PLA aircraft 13 times in 2005 and 107 times in the first three months of 2006.[19]  For two days in September 2007 the PLA sent 40 bomber sorties into the disputed Shirakaba/Chunxiao East China Sea gas field region, prompting 12 Japanese fighter intercept sorties.[20]  In November 2007 PLA Air Force exercises with KJ-2000 AWACS apparently followed coordinated East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet naval exercises designed to intimidate Taiwan.  Starting abruptly in 1999 the PLA Air Force has increased its presence in the Taiwan Strait, often flying up to or over the “mid line,” an unofficial boundary both sides have honored, offering some degree of “confidence,” but which Chinese commentators now say is not recognized by China.[21] From 1998 to 1999 PLA air sorties in or near the Strait jumped from 400 to 1,100, and then jumped from 940 to 1,700 from 2005 to 2006.[22]

But in late 2007, in a move consistent with Beijing’s efforts to intensify its “Legal Warfare” against Taiwan, China began indicating its intention to create a new air transport corridor which at some points would be barely 30km from the Taiwan Strait mid line, and also indicated it was going to create a Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Taiwan Strait.[23]  By one definition, an ADIZ is “The area of airspace over land or water, extending upward from the surface, within which the ready identification, the location, and the control of aircraft are required in the interest of national security.”  While China may want the new air corridor to help ease airport congestion, China currently only allocates 30 percent of its airspace for civil traffic,[24] raising questions about its real intent on the Taiwan Strait.   Both the new air corridor and a new ADIZ over the Taiwan Strait would offer multiple opportunities for miscalculation or for the creation of “aerial incidents” that could justify military escalation.  For example, what if Taiwanese fighters or SAM bases could not identify a Chinese airliner that has strayed well over the “mid line” prompting a tragedy similar to the 1983 Soviet shoot-down of the Korean Airlines Flight 007?  Might China then attack Taiwan or just force concessions?  Or might a Taiwan Air Force scramble to indentify such an intruder give the PLA cause to launch S-300 SAMs or fighters at the Taiwanese? 

As there appears to be a relationship between China’s growing airpower in its willingness to use its new capabilities to intimidate its neighbors, U.S. policy makers to pay close attention to how the PLA is quickly shifting the airpower balance on the Taiwan Strait.  For example, Taiwan does not have a 5th generation helmet display guided AAM that can counter the PL-10.  Should the PLA decide to upgrade its late model third generation J-7E/G and J-8F/H and newer 4th generation J-10 fighters with the PL-10 and its new light-weight radar guided AAM, it might quickly gain over 500 fighters that could dominate Taiwan’s 126 F-16s, 57 Mirage-2000s, 90 or so F-5 and 126 IDF combat aircraft in a short-range battle.  The PLA’s Sukhoi fighter fleet has had this superiority since the mid-1990s due to its R-27 helmet sighted AAMs.   All Taiwan fighters save the F-5s have the ability to fire self-guided medium range AIM-120, MICA EM or Sky Sword 2 AAMs, but these could in the future be handily outranged by a ramjet-powered PL-13.  The PL-13 would also pose a new threat to Taiwan’s six E-2 Hawkeye AWACS, essential for Taiwan to appropriately employ its smaller number of fighters against a larger force.  The introduction of these new PLA AAMs place greater pressure on Taiwan to replace its F-5s with 66 F-16 Block 50 fighters, as it has been trying to do for some time, and also to upgrade other elements of its air force.  Taiwan now has an urgent requirement for the helmet display sighted AIM-9X AAM for all of its fighters, as it also could handily justify an early purchase of Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters which would give it a modest technical advantage in terms of stealth. 

Narrowing Choices for Washington

China’s growing airpower also creates greater pressure for the United States to react, both in terms of improving its own capabilities and those of its allies and friends.  The advent of the PL-10 and possibility the PL-13 raises the possibility of a new “AAM Gap,” a condition that U.S. Air Forces endured for the 1990s.  Soon after the Cold War it was determined that former East German MiG-29 fighters had a decisive “first-shot” close-in battle advantage over U.S. fighters due to the helmet-sighted Vympel R-73 AAM.  The PLA purchased this AAM with its Su-27SK and Su-30MKK fighters in the 1990s, and had the same advantage over U.S. fighters until the 2003 introduction of the AIM-9X.  But in the PL-ASR/PL-10 the PLA may have a close-in combat AAM that could potentially have twice the range of the AIM-9X.[25]  This presents U.S. defense planners with little alternative but to seek an upgraded longer-range AIM-9.  In 1998 Australia chose the 20km range HMD sighted British ASRAAM over the AIM-9X to arm its F/A-18A fighters.

Furthermore, save for the F-35 which will not enter U.S. units until 2012, no U.S. fighter has an integral Infrared Search and Tracking (IRST) system, as is carried by PLA Su-27, Su-30 and J-11 fighters, and is employed by the European Eurofighter and the French Rafale.  This may enable the PLA to get the first shot with its new PL-10 AAMs when targeted passively by their IRST.  The U.S. Navy is proposing adding an IRST to the F/A-18E/F, but its placement on a centerline fuel tank offers a restricted field of view.[26] 

At the same time the U.S. may be facing stronger competition regarding longer-range AAMs.  While the maximum range of the AIM-120D remains a classified number, limitations of size dictate that it may very well be outranged by a ramjet powered missile that does not need to include an oxidizer in its fuel.  For the 1990s the U.S. justified its lag in developing a 5th generation short-range AAM due to the superiority of the Raytheon AIM-120 self-guided AAM family.  This, combined with the use of E-3 and E-2 AWACS, was believed to enable existing F-15 air superiority fighters to sustain a commanding edge in battle.  This proved valid against lesser air forces like those of Iraq and Bosnia.  And the U.S. expects that the Lockheed Martin F-22A’s impressive advantages in stealth, long range AESA radar and passive sensors, and super-cruising speeds to sustain the ability of the U.S. to find and attack it opponents first, thus securing air dominance. 

But as the emergence of PLA 5th generation AAMs indicates, this picture could change quickly absent U.S. action.  China is developing long-range AAMs like the PL-13 or could purchase the longer range Russian Novator K-100 and present an unacceptable threat to critical U.S. AWACS aircraft.  Denied superior “situational awareness” from AWACS, U.S. F-15s and F-16s would be forced to rely on their own radar, electronics and weapons.  The PLA’s development of new AAMs and its purchase of Russian AAMs would then raise the possibility of uncomfortably reducing the U.S. margin of superiority, and thus reducing deterrence.  The U.S. is now introducing the AIM-120D, which may have range in excess of 100km and has the advantage of a two-way data-link, so the missile’s radar can increase the situational awareness of the combat network.   The U.S. is also developing a next generation AAM designed to combine short-range, medium range air combat superiority and ground attack capabilities, called the Joint Dual Role Air Dominance Missile (JDRADM).  But despite experimental programs in the 1980s and 1990s the U.S. does not appear interested in a very long range AAM.  It may now be necessary for the U.S. to revisit programs that sought to develop two-stage and ramjet powered very long-range AAMs,[27] or consider purchasing the ramjet powered MBDA Meteor. 

 
 
Ramjet ARM: The U.S. Air Force recently released this image of a new ramjet-powered missile being tested from a QF-4 drone, apparently a new version of the AGM-88 anti-radar missile. This power plant could also form the basis for a new very long range AAM. Source: U.S. Air Force

The U.S. introduction of the F-22A offers substantial compensation, as its stealth and super-cruise offer great tactical advantages over most 4th generation fighters.  But the U.S. decision to limit the number of F-22As to 183 means that only 58 are going to be based in Alaska and Hawaii.[28]  This advantage is also in danger of being neutralized by the potential emergence of Chinese 5th generation fighters in the next decade, or a possible Chinese decision to purchase Russia’s 5th generation fighter.  Meanwhile, the U.S. faces even greater pressures from the potential loss of over one-third of its 440 F-15 fighter fleet due to recently discovered structural flaws.[29]  Even though there have been longstanding concerns about the aging F-15,[30] the U.S. Air Force has plans to upgrade about 177 with new AESA radar, a plan that may be reconsidered.[31] It may now be more important that the U.S. build up to the U.S. Air Force’s requirement for 381 F-22As, or even better, consider an upgraded version that could carry more and better long, medium and short-range AAM, and include an IRST device. 

The brutal surprise of Russian MiG-15s early in the Korean War helped push the U.S. to remain a leader in air superiority, an expensive investment sustained for three generations.  Preserving air superiority has also been a critical factor in America’s ability to deter large-scale conflict, especially in Asia.  The U.S. has also sustained a policy of providing its allies and key friends with ever more modern air defense systems so that they in turn contribute to the deterrence of conflict.  Washington has especially relied on maintaining Taiwan’s technical superiority in the air to undergird its ability to deter Chinese aggression.  But China’s sustained across-the-board investment in modern air combat capabilities is but one of many emerging areas of U.S.-Chinese military competition.  The U.S. has little choice but to exceed China’s capacity to produce superior combat aircraft, the weapons to arm them, and the support aircraft to ensure they sustain the ability to quickly establish command of the air in order to dominate battlefields below. 

 
 
Two of Japan’s Choices: Japan wants the F-22A and perhaps Australia may elect to seek it as well. But of the two only Japan has a fall-back indigenous 5th generation fighter program. Source: RD Fisher

Furthermore, it is necessary for Washington to consider additional measures to allow U.S. allies and friends to sustain local air superiority.  The U.S. will not sell the F-22A to Australia and Japan, despite their strong interest.[32]  Australia has decided to purchase up to 100 F-35s, which are optimized for attack missions, and the new Labour Party-led government is now re-evaluating the Liberal government’s 2007 decision to buy F/A-18E/F fighters, in part because they do not offer commanding superiority over Russian Sukhois being sold to China, Indonesia and Malaysia.  Given China’s all-around progress in air power building, it may be necessary to review F-22 export restrictions, and perhaps consider a version that can be more safely exported.  Japan has an urgent requirement to replace its 1960s vintage F-4EJ fighters but is also quietly investing in its own 5th generation fighter that could fly by the end of the next decade if the U.S. does not sell the F-22A.[33]  In addition, the U.S. must become far more responsive to Taiwan’s needs, to include rapid approval of Taipei’s request for 66 new F-16 Block 50 fighters, which can use the AIM-9X AAM.  Assisting Taiwan’s ability to deter China in the air can also serve to deter China’s ongoing buildup of missiles, naval blockade forces and invasion forces aimed at Taiwan.


[1] Images of the PL-10 and “PL-13” viewed on the CJDBY website on January 4, 2008, http://bbs.cjdby.net/viewthread.php?tid=445336&extra=page%3D1

[2] In the highly technical and competitive field aerial weaponry, one of the best filters has been Robert Hewson, the award winning editor of Jane’s Air Launched Weapons (JALW), which adds considerably to this study.

[3] Possible Russian use of IRSTs and passive phased array radar against the stealthy F-35 are explored in, Grigory “Grisha” Medved, “Sukhoi’s Lightning Strikes the F-35 JSF,” Air Power Australia NOTAM, January 20, 2008, http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-NOTAM-030907-1.html .

[4] “Meteor,” MBDA Web Page, http://www.mbda-systems.com/mbda/site/FO/scripts/siteFO_contenu.php?lang=EN&noeu_id=123; Robert Hewson, “Meteor BVRAAM,” Jane’s Air Launched Weapons, 2006, p. 63.

[5] In the late-1990s Raytheon developed a ramjet powered version of the AIM-120 for a British competition that was won by Meteor, see, Stewart Penny, “Long range dogfight,” Flight International, June 30, 1999, http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/1999/06/30/53319/long-range-dogfight.html

[6] Luoyang officials first described the background of the PL-9 AAM to the author at the 1996 Zhuhai Airshow. 

[7] “Latest China-South Africa Military Cooperation,” Kanwa Defense Review, October 15, 2004, p. 14.

[8] Robert Hewson, “R-Darter (V4),” JALW 2007, internet access file.

[9] The author would like to thank Robert Hewson for prompting this observation. 

[10] Robert Hewson, “China hints at new air-launched missiles,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, January 30, 2008.

[11] Robert Hewson, “SD-10 (PL-12), JALW 2007, op-cit.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Robert Hewson, “SD-10 (PL-12), JALW 2007, op-cit.

[14] Robert Hewson, “RVV-AE-PD (R-77M-PD),” JALW 2006, p. 82

[15] Ibid.

[16] Vympel’s active marketing of the R-77M-PD since the late 1990s also suggests that this missile’s technology was offered for export. 

[17] Sayan Majumdar, “After Brahmos More Collaborations?,” Indian Defence Consultants, April 12, 2004.

[18] Interview, May 2007.

[19] Mainichi Shimbun, April 20, 2006.

[20] Tsuyoshi Nojima, “China’s sudden show of force sent SDF jets scrambling,” The Asahi Shimbun, January 2, 2008, http://www.asahi.com/english/Herald-asahi/TKY200801020031.html .

[21] “Beijing Expert Says China Never Recognizes 'Cross-Strait Median Line,’” Zhongguo Tongxun She, January 7, 2008, Open Source Center Translation, CPP20080107004004 .

[22] Taiwan Ministry of Defense, 2006 National Defense Report Republic of China, Taipei: Ministry of Defense, 2006, p. 49.

[23] On December 6, 2007 Taiwan President Chen Shui Bien gave the first indication of China’s intention to impose an Air Defense Identification Zone on the Taiwan Strait, to prevent U.S. and Japanese intelligence gathering flights, and then to create a new air route in the Taiwan Strait, see, Ko Shu-ling, “Chen says Beijing altering status quo,” Taipei Times, December 7, 2007, p. 3;  for further on Taiwanese objections, see, “Taiwan criticizes Beijing over air route near air force training zone,” South China Morning Post, December 18, 2007.

[24] David Lague, “China planning Taiwan Strait route for commercial aviation,” International Herald Tribune, January 8, 2006. 

[25] While the exact range of the AIM-9X is a classified number, Jane’s Air Launched Weapons credits it with a 10km range.  However, one other source notes it has been fired to ranges of 20 to 22km by modified F-15C fighters, see Seymour Johnson, “Raytheon plans data link for AIM-9X Sidewinder,” Jane’s Missiles and Rockets, October 2005, p. 14.

[26] Graham Warwick, “Super Hornet set to get air-to-air boost from USN,” Flight International, April 17, 2007, http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2007/04/17/213274/super-hornet-set-to-get-air-to-air-boost-from-usn.html

[27] The U.S. is apparently developing a ramjet powered version of the AGM-88 Harm anti-radar missile to give it longer range to address new long-range SAM threats.  This effort could be redirected to provide a new longer range AAM, see, Bill Sweetman, “Fast Attack,” Ares Blog, January  22, 2008, http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/blogs/defense/index.jsp?plckController=Blog&plckScript=blogScript&plckElementId=blogDest&plckBlogPage=BlogViewPost&plckPostId=Blog%3a27ec4a53-dcc8-42d0-bd3a-01329aef79a7Post%3a710a5216-59db-44d3-86ef-9aa5cfecfd90 ; Robert Wall and Douglas Barrie, “Pentagon Eyes High-Speed Missiles For Stealth Aircraft,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, December  23, 2007, http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story_generic.jsp?channel=awst&id=news/aw122407p1.xml

[28] A wing of 40 are now being deployed to  Elmendorf Airbase, Alaska, and 18 to Hickam Airbase in Hawaii by 2011, see, Tech. Sgt. Mikal Canfield, “Elmendorf welcomes F-22 Raptor,”  Air Force Link, August 8, 2007, http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123063874&page=1 ; David Fulghum, “Hawaiian Raptors,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, June 8, 2007, http://aviationweek.typepad.com/ares/2007/06/hawaiian_raptor.html#more

[29] A mid-air breakup of a F-15C fighter in November 2007 forced repeated fleet groundings and has since led to the discovery of a structural flaw that may permanently ground about 160-180 F-15s, see, Graham Warwick, “Pictures: Manufacturing defects caused cracks that downed USAF F-15,” Flight International, January 11, 2008, http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2008/01/11/220799/pictures-manufacturing-defects-caused-cracks-that-downed-usaf-f-15.html .

[30] Carlos Bongioanni, “Age takes a toll,” Stars and Stripes, February 23, 2004.

[31] Dave Montgomery, “F-22 rises as an option after F-15 faults found,” Star-Telegram, January 12, 2008, http://www.star-telegram.com/business/story/405748.html; Amy Butler, “Flawed Eagles,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, January 14, 2008, p. 28. 

[32] Ian McPhedran, “Australia wants F-22 Raptor for RAAF,” The Herald Sun, January 8, 2008, http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,23015033-661,00.html ; Siva Govindasamy, “Japan asks USA to ease fighter restrictions,” Flight International, May 1, 2007, http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2007/05/01/213551/japan-asks-usa-to-ease-fighter-export-restrictions.html .

[33] See author, “Japanese Military Technology Advances,” International Assessment and Strategy Center, December 6, 2007.

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