war on the rocks

It’s Not Your Father’s PLAAF: China’s Push to Develop Domestic Air-to-Air Missiles

February 21, 2018

Editor’s Note: This article marks the release of The Military Balance 2018 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

A senior Russian missile designer reputedly quipped that without weapons, combat aircraft were fit really only for air shows. China, previously one of Russia’s biggest customers, has taken this sentiment to heart. For more than a decade, Beijing has worked to transform its inventory of air-to-air missiles (AAMs), as part of its broader military-modernization strategy.

Traditionally, China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has relied on buying or making licensed (or un-licensed) copies of other countries’ air-to-air weapons. Today, this is no longer the case, with a variety of China’s own designs now entering service or in development. These weapons are considerably more capable than the ones they are replacing.

China aims to provide its modern combat aircraft with an array of missiles that can deny any opponent — starting with the United States — the luxury of air supremacy. Given the obvious geographical friction points between China and the United States, the air and naval domains are of particular importance. If China were to deny the United States air superiority in this way, America could only win it back with the commitment of a level of blood and treasure not seriously contemplated by the Pentagon for decades. The ability to contest the air domain is of course dependent on far more than an array of missiles, however impressive the technical performance of any particular weapon. Alongside China’s combat aircraft and missiles, tactics, techniques, training and procedures are also important, especially against a peer adversary. These remain an area of comparative weakness for the PLAAF, but one that the service is aware of and attempting to address. Since 2011, China’s air force has held the “Golden Helmet” air combat competition, intended to help develop the skills required. The event includes one-versus-one to formation-on-formation air engagements, with aircrew drawn from all of the military’s five theatre commands. The engagements include short, medium, and long-range air combat. The PLAAF has also established a unit intended act as an opposing force in exercises to further attempt to increase the value of its air combat training.

The PLAAF’s multirole fighter inventory now includes the single-seat Chengdu J-10 Firebird and Shenyang J-11B Flanker L (a locally produced version of the Russian Su-27 Flanker which the air force also operates). It has also bought a small number of the Su-35 along while also increasing production of the two-seat J-16 (again a locally produced two-seat Flanker variant) and Su-30MKK Flanker. Its first stealthy fighter aircraft, the Chengdu J-20, is now in operational test and evaluation, with a wider entry into service likely to begin before 2020.

The aircraft China acquired from Moscow have also come with Russian air-to-air missiles. But, for its own versions of Russian aircraft, as well as for its own designs, China is developing a number of its own increasingly capable air-to-air missiles. These span from imaging infrared short-range “dogfight” missiles to medium, long, and very long-range weapons that rely on radar guidance to close with the target.

The weapons now being introduced, or in the latter stages of development, seem broadly equal to their Western counterparts in terms of performance. In one case, that of a very-long-range AAM, there is no Western equivalent.

Visual Acquisition

Air-to-air missiles are categorized as “within-visual-range” and “beyond-visual-range.” China’s intent is to contest the air domain from close-range to medium range and beyond, to disadvantage any opponent. The within-visual-range, or “dogfight,” missile describes a weapon traditionally dependent on infrared guidance. For the early generations of this class of missiles this effectively meant the pilot closing to within sight of the target aircraft to allow the infrared seeker to acquire the target. The first generation of infrared-missiles, developed in the 1950s, required the target aircraft be approached from the rear as the main source of infrared energy was the jet-engine and seeker sensitivity was limited. In contrast, the “dogfight” missiles now in service are capable of being fired at a target from any aspect within range, and at considerably extended ranges, and with far greater missile maneuverability. China now has in operation a missile in this class, called the PL-10 (Pi Li is Chinese for thunderbolt).

The PL-10 entered service in 2015 and provides the PLAAF with highly maneuverable imaging infrared guided missile comparable in performance terms to other weapons in this class possessed by the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, South Africa, and Israel. The missile is replacing the PL-8 (based on the Israeli Python 3) and the Russian R-73 (AA-11A Archer) as China’s most capable short-range missile. The PL-10 uses an imaging infrared seeker rather than the less capable IR seeker fitted to the PL-8 or R-73. More resistant to counter-measures, imaging seekers also provide the potential to pick where to strike against a target, thereby improving the chances of a successful engagement.

The arena of within visual range air combat becomes an increasingly demanding environment when faced with a fourth-generation missile such as the PL-10, compared to the PL-8 or the R-73. The combination of an imaging infrared seeker, target detection range, high agility, and the capacity to fire at the opponent from all aspects is provides the Chinese air force with a formidable weapon. There is also the greater risk of a “mutual kill” in short-range air-to-air engagements where in a one-versus-one combat both aircraft are liable to be able to launch short-range missiles with a high chance of success. Fourth-generation missiles become more lethal when used in combination with a helmet-mounted sight, where the missile seeker follows where the pilot is looking. China presently lags the West in this area, but is working to fix that.

Out of Sight

As the close-in fight has become increasingly lethal, then the ability to engage at target at medium-range grows increasingly more attractive. In a full-blown peer-on-peer war, most of the air combat would begin at such ranges. Beyond visual-range weapons are normally associated with either semi-active or active radar guidance. In the former, the missile seeker is dependent on the aircraft’s radar illuminating the target throughout the course of the engagement, while in the latter the missile seeker operates independently, emitting and receiving during the final stage of the engagement. The advantage of an active-radar guided missile is that the launch aircraft is not limited by the need to illuminate the target until the engagement is over.

China’s air force was dependent for these types of weapons on Russia from the mid-1990s and into the early 2000s with the semi-active R-27R (AA-10A Alamo) and the active-radar guided R-77 (AA-12A Adder) supplied as part of combat aircraft deals. Beginning in the mid-1990s, however, China also began to work on the development of an active-radar guided missile, with considerable Russian support, known as the PL-12. This missile entered Chinese service in 2006–07, giving the air force its first domestically produced active-radar-guided AAM. The PL-12 is broadly comparable to a number of Western medium-range missiles in this class, while the PL-12 is also the subject of an ongoing upgrade.

The PL-12, however, was only the start of China’s quest for increasingly capable radar-guided AAMs. Up to four other radar-guided beyond-visual-range missiles are in varying stages of design or development.

One of these, the PL-15, could enter service during the course of 2018, and has already been cited by senior U.S. Air Force personnel as a significant concern, including remarks by Gen. Hawk Carlisle, then head of U.S. Air Combat Command, in 2015. The PL-15 may have a maximum range in the order of 200 kilometres and is thought to be fitted with an advanced seeker using an active electronically scanned radar. The maximum range describes how far the missile could reach with an optimized trajectory requiring no maneuvering and with little energy left at the end of the flight. But given that a missile in the class of the PL-15 would often be used to engage a combat aircraft of a similar class, its actual maximum engagement range against a maneuvering target would be considerably less, though likely still in excess of the present Western generation of solid-rocket medium-range missiles. One of the limitations of several of the current generation of beyond-visual- range AAMs is that the probability of a successful engagement is reduced significantly against a maneuvering target. This is because the missile rapidly bleeds off energy as it turns to try to close with the threat aircraft.

The Chinese guided-weapons sector is also exploring the application of a rocket/ramjet combination for propulsion as means of improving the probability of a “kill” at medium and extended ranges. This class of missile uses a ramjet sustainer engine rather than a solid-propellant rocket motor. Ramjet engines use atmospheric oxygen mixed with fuel for missile propulsion. Although using a ramjet sustainer engine does not deliver the maximum speed of a solid-rocket motor, it provides a higher average speed, with the ramjet motor providing power for a far greater time than the shorter burn-time of a solid-fuel rocket. The European Meteor missile was the first rocket/ramjet-powered AAM to enter service, when in 2016 the Swedish Air Force became the first of the six partner nations in the British-led project to field the missile.

An even longer-range AAM is also in the later stages of development. In late 2016, images appeared on the Internet of a Shenyang J-16 Flanker carrying two large missiles. The missile configuration suggested the design was intended to provide a very-long-range air-to-air capability, at up to around 400 kilometers, and intended to be used against tankers, airborne early warning and control aircraft, and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, at extended engagement ranges.

The Implications for the West

The air domain, whether at close, medium, or long-range, is becoming an increasingly contested environment. The United States of course still retains advantages, not least of all in the development and the operation of stealthy combat aircraft, but the absolute gap in technology — and capabilities is narrowing. Continuing to develop aircraft designs and systems that minimize the range at which you can be detected while maximizing the range at which you can find and fire at the target will only grow in importance. This would suggest that America’s emphasis should be placed on developing a missile, or missiles, capable of engagement ranges beyond that of the latest model of the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, the AIM-120D.

For the notional Western combat aircraft pilot, there is no obvious respite to be found in attempting to avoid within visual range threat of the PL-10 by keeping to beyond visual range. In this environment also the PLAAF will be able to mount an increasingly credible challenge, and at engagement ranges against some targets that would previously have been considered safe. As one former U.S. Air Force tanker pilot drily noted to this author when discussing China’s yet-to-be-named, and yet-to-enter service, very long-range AAM, “That’s aimed right at me.”


Douglas Barrie joined the IISS in 2010 after nearly a quarter of a century as a defense aerospace journalist. He is the institute’s subject matter specialist on airpower. Prior to his current post he was the London bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology. He holds an MA Hons. in English Literature from Edinburgh University and is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Image: Wikimedia Commons