The Chinese Air Force is building a mystery missile designed to turn the tables on America's air power advantage.
Getty ImagesEd Jones
The weapon, tentatively known as PL-XX, is a very-long-range missile designed to strike enemy aircraft loitering just beyond the edge of an air battle. The point is to shoot down the tankers, airborne early warning planes, and other support aircraft that U.S. combat jets rely upon during wartime. Stripped of these forces, U.S. air power would operate at a serious disadvantage, shifting the air battle in China’s favor.
Without these planes, U.S. forces would operate at a severe disadvantage.
The new missile, spotted in 2016 at the Zhuhai Air Show, is the subject of a new article at Aviation Week & Space Technology. PL-XX carries the typical "PL" designation common to Chinese air-to-air missiles. At 18 feet long, PL-XX is thought to have a range exceeding 100 miles, the typical maximum range of air-to-air missiles.
A KC-135 aerial refueling tanker passes gas to a U.S. Air Force F-16C fighter. Getty Images
U.S. warplanes need plenty of support to reach their wartime potential. In that way, tankers, command and control aircraft, and reconnaissance planes are the backbone that let fighters operate at long ranges.
For example, an AWACs E-3 Sentry can detect enemy aircraft at longer ranges and vector in American fighters flying with their own radars off—a technique that makes them harder to detect. AWACs planes also orchestrate the air battle, directing friendly forces against enemy forces. Airborne refueling tankers dramatically extend the range of short-range fighters such as the F-35.
Without these planes, U.S. forces would operate at a severe disadvantage. Stealthy fighter jets would have to fly with their radars constantly on to search for enemies, emitting electromagnetic radiation that enemy forces could use to detect them. Coordination of the air battle would become more difficult and less efficient, controlled by individual pilots already flying their own combat missions. Deprived of the ability to refuel in midair, targets deep behind enemy lines would become off-limits and fighters would patrol at shorter ranges.
Behind the Air Lines
China's new missile most likely would work like this: In a future air battle, a Chengdu J-20 fighter loaded with PL-XX would attempt to fly around U.S. fighters to get behind them and search for a tanker or AWACs plane. If it finds such a target, the J-20 would launch the missile from long range, then disengage. Even if the missile misses, the danger might force U.S. support aircraft to fly farther behind friendly lines, limiting their effectiveness in general.
Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter. Getty Images
PL-XX appears similar in concept to the Soviet K-100 missile. Developed by Novator, the K-100 was unique among air-to-air missiles in being a two stage missile, using a booster rocket from the ground-based S-300 surface-to-air missile to give it range of 186 miles. K-100 was an estimated 19.7 feet long and weighed nearly two tons. This gave K-100 the ability to engage targets flying from 10 to 98,425 feet, and at speeds of up to 2,485 miles an hour.
The U.S. military is aware of the threat to aircraft and is working to make support aircraft more survivable. The Air Force is looking to install defensive systems—including lasers—to protect tankers and other large support aircraft. It is also looking at developing a new, stealthy tanker, known as KC-Z.