Shadowy New Missile Appears Under the Wing of Chinese J-16 Fighter

This could be more proof that China is investing in capabilities aimed at attacking weak links in America’s air combat doctrine.

China’s aim to develop aerial weaponry tailored to target American force-multiplying aerial assets, like tankers and sensor aircraft, may have just appeared in another tangible form—a relatively huge and previously unseen air-to-air missile.

For years, I have posited that China would develop highly focused capabilities to counter specific but glaring weaknesses in America’s high-tech and increasingly networked expeditionary war fighting machine and battle doctrine. This pertains specifically to developing weapons and tactics used to attack low-density but high-value flying assets. China’s J-20 stealth fighter-interceptor is part of this strategy.

It’s a simple premise really, one that we have discussed many times before. China knows that American and allied air power is designed around a strategy of working cooperatively as a deeply networked team, one full of diverse assets that together equal far more than the sum of their individual parts. Taking on American fighters in a traditional manner would be a losing game, at least when looked at in a vacuum void of quantitative factors. But if China can successfully attack the enabling assets that support the "shooting" assets, they can make inroads into leveling the air combat playing field. This means coming up with weapons and tactics tailored towards targeting American airborne early warning and control aircraft, and other key flying sensor platforms and communications nodes that often operate behind—but relatively close to—the front lines.


Large support assets, such as tankers, AEW&C aircraft, JSTARs, and even high-flying unmanned aircraft are vulnerable to long-range missile shots in certain cases. 

These assets offer the US and allied combat aircraft the enhanced situational awareness that no other force in the world can muster, and this is largely a decisive factor in obtaining the very high kill ratios needed to sustain an expeditionary air campaigns against a near-peer state competitor. In addition, also being able to successfully target lumbering tanker aircraft that provide America’s relatively short-range, aerial refueling addicted combat aircraft fleet with a constant stream of fuel would hit US airpower where it hurts most. Doing so can even lead to the demise of the aircraft that the targeted tankers support during long-range combat operations. In other words, shoot down the tanker and you may have shot down the fighters it supports without even firing a shot at them. Or at least you have pulled those fighters out of the fight, and in some cases for a prolonged periods of time if they have to divert to remote airfields, many of which may be under threat of cruise and ballistic missile attack themselves by China's missile forces.

China has created a long-range stealth fighter-interceptor that can fly out over relatively large distances to obtain a sensor picture of contested airspace, and even attack these vulnerable aerial capabilities on their own. That being the J-20, and now the People's Liberation Army Air Force seems to be adding another layer to this strategy in the form of fielding a long-range missile for its non-stealthy fighters to chuck at America’s (or another advanced foe) most prized aerial assets, all from outside the range of America’s own air-to-air missiles.

J-16 with a unique payload spotted somewhere in China. 

Pictures have surfaced on Chinese internet showing a PLAAF J-16 indigenous multi-role Flanker derivative (roughly analogous to the Su-30MKK Flanker) toting this new missile during takeoff. The missile itself is of a unique and substantial design. Some estimates put it at over 18 feet long. The AIM-120 AMRAAM in comparison is just 12 feet long. So we are talking about one large missile here, and its thin profile is indicative of high kinematic performance. The fact that no fins can be seen aside from small ones at it's rear also point to the possibility that the missile uses thrust vectoring and leverages very high speed over maneuverability to kill its target. Yet the reality is that the targets it is most likely primarily intended for don’t have the ability to make hard maneuvers at all.

A weapon such as this can likely be fired from well over long-ranges (roughly 100 miles away or more), and climb to a high altitude before coasting down onto their targets at near hypersonic speeds. Guidance can come from a whole mix of potential concepts, although to begin with an anti-radiation seeker would best allow the missile to execute an attack on an enemy airborne early warning aircraft (E-3, E-2) over long-ranges, and to do so passively without the missile putting out any detectable RF emissions of its own. This capability can be further enhanced by installing a dual-mode seeker, where imaging infrared or active radar homing is used for the missile's final attack phase, as well as anti-radiation homing. This would greatly increase the missile's probability of kill. Infrared homing is very attractive when paired with an air-to-air anti-radiation missile as it is also passive and undetectable emissions-wise.  

Such a missile could also be networked to use targeting information from third party assets. In fact it would almost certainly have this capability from day one. This info can be sent to the missile’s launch aircraft as well as to the missile itself in-flight. Mid-course updates would be all but necessary for a missile with this type of range as the target could move in any direction dramatically between the time the missile is initially launched and when it arrives in the area where the target was at the time of launch.

A closer detail of the missile. Notice how the background it blurred/pixelated--generally speaking "leaks" from China are what the government wants to be released. 

The J-20, which would be able to survive closer to threats than any 4th generation fighter could, would be very useful in the providing such "third party" targeting information to a missile like this, even in very quick bursts to minimize the J-20’s chances of being detected. All of these concepts are not exclusive to China’s air warfare doctrine. Far from it in fact as the west employs them as well. NATO’s longest-range air-to-air missile, the MBDA Meteor, in particular is especially relevant when it comes to such tactics. Read all about the Meteor and all these types of air-to-air engagement concepts in this past War Zone feature.

If this new missile is introduced into service as a long-range anti-radiation weapon, it may also be used for going after ground and surface-based radar threats as well in the high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) role. The fact that it is being flown on the J-16 is especially relevant in this regard as this aircraft is thought to have a developing suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD)/”wild weasel” mission assigned to it.

Theoretically, these new missiles could pose a risk to any radio-frequency emitting sensor system of decent power. But as we mentioned before, in the future they may be adapted to go after a range of targets via a series of unique seeker configurations. As such, Chinese Flanker derivatives hauling these missiles could work as "air-to-air missile trucks." This is identical to the way the F-15C/D is evolving into a similar platform when it comes to supporting F-22s and eventually F-35s that they will team with in combat.  

We have also noted in the past that the unstealthy F-15C/D could really benefit from a longer-range missile than even the AIM-120D that has just entered service. This is especially true when working in the missile truck role in support of its more modern and stealthy stablemates. With this in mind, and if this Chinese missile is what we think it is, Beijing may be ahead of the US in this respect, although the PLAAF's networking capabilities still may be an issue.


A pair of J-20s execute a break.

It is also worth noting that the large missile in question won’t likely be able to fit inside the J-20’s weapons bay, as it is just too long. The J-20’s weapons bay seems to be designed for the PL-12, and similarly sized medium-range air-to-air missiles, which have dimensions much like the American AIM-120 AMRAAM. Yet this could change as a further evolved and slightly larger J-20 variant may already be in the works. But even if the J-20’s design stays the same, the idea that the stealthy jet may be able to use its large fuel load and forward position to order-up long-range missile attacks by J-16s and other fighters operating many dozens of miles behind the front lines means its limited internal magazine may not be such a hinderance.

J-20's weapons bay open during testing over the Chengdu aircraft plant. 

What also remains unclear is if this missile is actually the PL-15 that has loomed over the Pentagon for some time, or if this is the so-called PL-XX, a new concept all together. It was originally thought that the PL-15 would feature be a throttleable ramjet engine similar to the Meteor, but things may have changed. Another missile concept, the PL-21, seems to also use this configuration. We just don't know what has moved from the concept stage to the testing stage. In fact, this design could even be a “hit-to-kill” missile, where it uses all its internal volume for fuel and guidance, thus maximizing range, and slams into its target instead of detonating a warhead nearby it.

Now we will have to wait for other images of this new weapon to emerge so that we can better verify current size estimates and assess its capabilities. We will keep you updated as the story unfolds.

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