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For years, the American-made AIM-120 remained one of the most powerful modern air-to-air missiles. China today unveiled the latest version of its “most advanced” PL-15 missile, which some analysts say may pose a significant challenge for US air power.
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The LETRI PiLi, more commonly known as the PL-15, is an ultra-sophisticated long-range beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missile (AAM) currently in use by the People’s Liberation Army-Army air (PLAAF). The export variant, the PL-15E, was on display at the ongoing Zhuhai Airshow.
The PL-15 is an upgrade to the PL-12 and has been redesigned with shortened main and rear control fins, with a smaller wingspan. This was made to fit into the internal weapon bay of the next generation J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’ and FC-31 fighters.
According to its manufacturer, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, the PL-15E “has the capacity to attack manned planes, unmanned aircraft, cruise missiles and other targets over 145 km away. [90 miles] a way”.
The medium and long range missile can travel at four times the speed of sound. It is powered by a dual-pulse rocket motor and is equipped with a two-way data link for dynamic retargeting in the air.
The missile’s active seeker uses an EASA aperture developed by the institute No. 607 which has a narrow acquisition beam. EASA provides the PL -15 with robust Electronic Countermeasures (EECMs). Currently, the J-10C, J-16 and some J-20 are armed with the PL-15.
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The estimated range of the PL-15 is would have 200 kilometers with a large NOSE (no escape zone). The export variant of the missile, PL-15E, has lower specifications. But still, it has a higher range than its American counterpart.
The PL-15E is protected by a combination of inertia, satellite navigation, data link and radar. The missile can cover long and short range air combat as well as surface attack. The PL-15E is particularly powerful due to its BVR capacity much higher than that of other countries.
Developed by the American defense company Raytheon, the advanced medium-range AIM AIM-120 has remained a benchmark in missile technology. The missile is used by the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps (USMC).
The AIM-120 is the first radar-guided line-of-sight AAM in the United States. It can navigate at speeds of up to Mach 4, has an effective range of 110 kilometers, and is propelled by a solid rocket rocket. The missile’s warhead is made up of a fragmentation explosive.
The AIM-120 is 12 feet long and seven inches in diameter. The wingspan of the AIM-120A / B variants is 21 inches. Variants of the F / A-18 Super Hornet C / D / E / F are equipped with the AIM-120.
In addition, the F-15, F-16 as well as the stealth fighters F-35 and F-22 also embark this missile.
AIM-120 vs. PL-15
A comparative analysis of the range indicates an advantage for the Chinese PL-15. Reports in the US media are indicative of Washington’s concerns over the Beijing missile.
The PL-15 has often been equated with the AIM-120D. There are concerns about the range of the PL-15, which some say could “nullify” US air superiority.
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General Herbert Carlisle, chief of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, was quoted by Flight Global magazine as saying that the AIM-120 is “of high priority” for America. “The PL-15 and the range of this missile, we must be able to overtake this missile,” he stressed.
According to Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst, the PL-15 and AIM-120D both have high range allowing the platform to be transformed into an aerial sniper.
This would allow an aircraft armed with the missile to search for and destroy enemy fighters, AWACS, and aerial refuellers beyond visual range. Although the range of the PL-15 is believed to be greater than that of the AIM-120, Dongxu calls this an exaggeration.
The J-20, J-16 and J-10C fighter jets have collectively been called the “air trident” by Chinese military analysts. Reports from an air defense penetration exercise in June 2018 indicated that they were armed with PL-15 missiles.
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It also suggests that this weapon could be deployed in the event of large-scale hostilities in the Indo-Pacific region.
Philippines-based South Asian air power analyst Miguel Miranda told the EurAsian Times: “Chinese state-owned enterprises in its military-industrial complex are capable of mass-producing what is perhaps the most large assortment of air-to-air munitions never created. This includes many analogues or outright copies of American air-to-air missiles. “
“Among them is the PL-15 and its variants. But we have to understand that these missiles are only as effective as airplanes and their pilots. In this regard, the most potent threat to US air power in the Indo-Pacific is China’s most advanced attack aircraft: the J-20, J-16 and J-15 based on an aircraft carrier, as well as the J-11 and Su-30MK is provided by Russia, ”added the analyst.
“For now, the US Navy and Marine Corps have a numerical advantage in terms of surface ships and aircraft over the Chinese Navy. But that won’t mean much when China’s anti-access / area denial weapons (mobile ballistic and cruise missiles) have blocked 500 to 1,000 miles of open sea between the Chinese coast and the Pacific Ocean. “
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Miranda explains: “In a hypothetical air battle, the United States can still leverage its strategic bombers and stealth fighters for attacks that will cripple the PLA on the ground … but there will be the PLAAF J-20s and around 600 fighters. fourth generation to face.
Consider how many BVR missiles the Chinese fighters will carry. Now add the air defenses to the ground. The challenge this poses to the US Navy and Marine Corps is simply well beyond its own operational experience, ”continued the Filipino defense analyst.
“Now, if China maintains its production rate of fourth and 4.5 generation aircraft and introduces new stealth fighters by the mid-2020s, the balance in the air will definitely shift to China.
Even more so when it has so many new drones, subsonic and supersonic, to give PLAAF and PLAN better situational awareness on the first island chain, ”noted Miranda.
He went on to say, “As for the hypothetical battles involving PLAN / PLAAF fighters armed with PL-15s, a particular threat they pose is to the limited AEW & C assets of the US Navy and even rotorcraft and drones. embedded.
If this happens, the critical ties that support the air power of the US Navy are neutralized, leaving the attack aircraft vulnerable. This is in addition to the fact that the same Chinese J-20s and J-16s can also launch cruise missiles at US Navy carrier strike groups. “
“The PL-15 is just one part of an ever-growing arsenal of A2 / AD weapons that can degrade the projection of US forces into a future conflict and ensure Chinese hegemony over Asia. Yes, the stakes are quite high, ”concluded the analyst.