New-generation Chinese air-to-air missiles

In 1980, the forces of the People's Liberation Army, the Chinese armed forces, only had poor quality copies of Soviet systems, whether in terms of combat planes, helicopters, armored vehicles, and missiles. In terms of air-to-air missiles, Chinese planes carried PL-2 missiles, a copy of the Russian AA-2 Atoll missile, and PL-5, the first missile of entirely Chinese design, with radar guidance.

During the 80s, Beijing undertook to thoroughly modernize its armed forces and its defense industry. There followed numerous contracts aimed at acquiring Russian and Western technologies, which gave birth to the PL-7, a copy of the French Magic 1 missile from Matra, PL-8, a copy of the Israeli Python 3, and the PL-10, very inspired by the German IRIS-T missile, which today represents the PLA's standard dogfight missile.

PL 10 and PL 12 equipping a J10 light fighter Fighter aviation | Air-to-Air Missiles | Military planning and plans
PL-10 (foreground) and PL-12 equipping a Chinese J10C

From the 1990s, China began to design its own systems, even if these were improved versions of existing systems. They now equip PLA combat aircraft, and have performances comparable to those of their Western counterparts such as the PL-11 semi-active radar-guided air-to-air missile, an improved version of the Italian Aspide missile, itself a derivative of the American Sparrow missile.

The PL-12 missile (2005 – Medium range – active radar)

Designed in the 90s with the support of the Russian company Wympel, the SD10 entered service in 2005, when it took the designation PL-12. It is a medium-range missile with active radar guidance, like the American AMRAAM, or the French Mica. With a range of 70 to 100 km, it has had several versions to strengthen the performance of its seeker, and its resistance to jamming as well as decoys.

PL 10 under the wing of a Pakistani JF17 Fighter aircraft | Air-to-Air Missiles | Military planning and plans
PL-12 under the wing of a Pakistani JF17

The PL-13 missile (2013 – Short range – active radar)

Entirely designed in China, the characteristics of the PL-13 are little known in the West. It would be a short-to-medium range air-to-air missile designed for dogfighting, equipped with an active radar seeker offering a 60° de-aiming capability when connected to the J-20's helmet sight system . It would have significant resistance to thermal lures and would obviously be multi-aspect. According to several assessments, it would have similar performance to the American AIM-9X Sidewinder missile.

The PL-14 missile (unknown – Long range – active radar)

If the PL-13 is poorly known, the PL-14 is particularly well hidden by the Chinese armies. It would be, neither more nor less, a (partial?) copy of the European Meteor missile. Like the Meteor, the PL-14 would be powered by a twin ramjet, giving the missile a very long range, and a speed maintained throughout the flight, therefore a very large lethal zone. However, it seems that the guidance system is entirely Chinese, without knowing what its performance is.

PL15 and PL10 on J20 Fighter aircraft | Air-to-Air Missiles | Military planning and plans
PL-10 and PL-15 (in the hold) fitted to a J20

The PL-15 missile (2016 – Very long range – active radar)

The PL-15 missile is a very long-range air-to-air missile, exceeding 300 km, derived from the PL-12 and the PL-14, with which it shares part of the guidance systems. On the other hand, the PL-15 has smaller dimensions than the PL-12, allowing two to board in each of the J-2's holds. This missile is particularly effective in eliminating support aircraft, such as Awacs or tanker aircraft, like the Russian R-20M. It is considered highly problematic by the US Air Force and US Navy, who undertook the design of the long-range AIM-37 missile in order to have similar engagement capabilities. It can equip J260C, J10 and J-16 aircraft, and has been exported to Serbia (Mig20) and appears to be able to equip Pakistani JF29s.

The PL-21 missile (unknown – long range – active radar)

The latest addition to the rich family of Chinese air-to-air missiles, the PL-21 is powered by a ramjet, guided by an AESA radar, and could reach a range of 160 km, in an intense electronic warfare environment. In this sense, it would be the real equivalent of the European Meteor, and the latest versions of the American AIM 120. However, it seems that its large size makes its use in the holds of the J20 difficult. However, it was noticed under the wings of the J-16.

Conclusion

In view of these elements, we understand that China is today in a position to challenge the technological ascendancy that Western countries enjoyed for nearly 40 years in terms of air-to-air missiles. It should also be noted that information concerning Chinese systems is particularly fragmented, unlike, for example, Russia. Missiles are most often identified when they begin to equip PLA aircraft.

Considering what we know, we cannot ignore the threat that what we don't know can pose. It therefore seems likely that, in the years to come, China will field air-air combat systems with even higher performance than existing ones, and therefore, potentially, superior to existing American and European systems. This explains the rapid and confidential launch of the American AIM-260 program, as it should encourage Europeans to be less confident regarding the supposed superiority of the Meteor missile in the years to come.

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