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China’s next-gen air missile could decide a Taiwan war

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China has showcased its J-16 fighters armed with the PL-17 missile, a weaponry upgrade that significantly enhances the aircraft’s fighting power while reflecting a broader shift in China’s global air warfare posture.

A photo released by China shows J-16 Flanker derivatives equipped with various air-to-air missiles including the long-range PL-17, also known as PL-XX or PL-20, The Warzone reported.

The missile was shown in a formation of four J-16 jets, each carrying a mix of missiles spanning short to very long-range engagement capabilities. The Warzone report notes that the PL-17 is known for its unprecedented reach, significantly enhancing the J-16’s operational capacity.

The PL-17 is a long-range beyond visual range (BVR) missile for critical aerial targets such as aerial tankers and airborne warning and control system aircraft (AWACS).

While the Warzone mentions that the PL-17 was first observed seven years before the article’s publication, the missile type has been the subject of ongoing analysis. It is widely considered a successor to the PL-12 and is intended primarily for targeting high-value assets like tankers and airborne early-warning aircraft.

The missile, which is significantly larger than the PL-15, measures almost 20 feet in length, is equipped with a dual-pulse rocket motor, four small tail fins, thrust-vectoring controls and can reach speeds of at least Mach 4.

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Its guidance system, meanwhile, combines a two-way datalink and an AESA seeker and is highly resistant to electronic countermeasures. The missile’s design also suggests the inclusion of an infrared seeker, making it more difficult to defeat in its terminal engagement phase.

However, The Warzone says that the PL-17’s size currently restricts it to an external carriage, first identified on the J-16. The report says that its operational status as of 2023 remains unclear, with ongoing testing but no official confirmation of service entry.

The report also points out the information warfare aspect of China’s public display of these missiles, a clear attempt to signal operational readiness or near-readiness even if that’s not necessarily the case.

In a March 2023 working paper for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Samuel Leiter writes that, since the Gulf War, China has prioritized matching US capabilities but still lags significantly in fighter capabilities.

Leiter argues that China’s military doctrine emphasizes the use of air power for maritime defense, particularly in scenarios close to home including the near seas, reflecting a significant strategic shift toward establishing air superiority in light of modern warfighting paradigms.

However, he argues that despite all of China’s efforts it can still only challenge US air superiority by resorting to airbase attacks. He also claims that US estimates often overstate China’s capabilities through assessments that count military systems rather than considering their actual operational effectiveness and training differences​​.

Leiter notes that fourth-generation US and Japanese aircraft have significant advantages over their Chinese counterparts in terms of radar detection, air-to-air missile ranges and stealth capabilities.

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He says these factors are crucial in BVR combat, where stealth and sensor advantages allow aircraft to engage without being detected, leading to different combat performance outcomes even among same-generation aircraft​​.

He also notes that transitioning to BVR combat has transformed air engagements from traditional dogfights to one-sided executions, heavily favoring technologically advanced aircraft.

Leiter argues historical data shows significantly higher kill ratios for more advanced fighters, with the gap between fifth- and fourth-generation aircraft likely more significant than previous generational gaps​​.

Asia Times reported in May 2022 how an air war between China and Japan might occur. Satellite photos from China’s western province of Xinjiang have shown it may aim to destroy Japan’s AWACS aircraft on the ground or, failing that, in the air using very long-range BVR missiles like the PL-17.

Japan operates four E-767 and 16 E-2 Hawkeye AWACS planes, which are de facto mobile command posts that share information between friendly aircraft and guide fighters toward their targets.

Without AWACS planes, Japan would lose the capability to monitor the strategic Ryukyu Islands, which form a containment line against Chinese ships and submarines from flanking maneuvers against Taiwan or to launch ballistic missiles aimed at Guam or even the US mainland.

Furthermore, Asia Times reported in February 2023 about the vulnerabilities of the US aerial tanker fleet, which is critical to US power projection. US tanker aircraft currently sustain a very high rate of operations that require more spare capacity as strategic competition between China and Russia intensifies.

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However, the US tanker fleet is old with the age of aircraft averaging 52 years. US aerial refueling is also increasingly vulnerable as China now has the missile capacity to attack US aircraft and airbases such as Guam and Okinawa.

Long-range missiles like the PL-17 can force US aerial tankers to operate at least 1,200 kilometers away from China’s coast, which could result in its fighter escorts not having enough fuel to stay on station.

Despite those threats, however, the US has been proactive in developing countermeasures to address the threat of ever-more advanced Chinese BVR missiles.

In a 2019 article for the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), Douglas Barrie notes that the US is developing the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM) to replace the aging AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and in response to ever-more advanced Chinese missiles such as the PL-17.

Barrie says the AIM-260 is expected to be deployed on low-observable platforms like the F-22 and, to a lesser extent, the F-35 to take advantage of their stealth capabilities in conjunction with the missile’s high performance. However, he notes this approach might be less effective with the US Air Force’s older fighters such as the F-15 and F-16.

New US stealth aircraft such as the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and B-21 Raider may feature substantial improvements in stealth technology, making them harder to track and target at long ranges.

However, advances in stealth technology could mean that opposing aircraft may end up in sight of each other, which would require proficiency in air combat maneuvering (ACM) for within-visual-range (WVR) engagements.

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Sensor fusion is also crucial in defeating BVR missiles, wherein data from various sensors are combined to give pilots a comprehensive picture of the battlefield and detect threats before they come into strike range.

The US Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) strategy stresses sensor fusion and data analysis using AI and machine learning to maintain information and decision advantage.

Source: Asia Times

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