A new image of four Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force J-16 fighters in formation released on November 2 has provided a first look at a new very long ranged air to air missile class in an active fighter squadron, with the missiles seen being carried by two of the aircraft. Long designated ‘PL-XX’ in the West, with its Chinese designation remaining unknown, the very large missile is estimated to have an engagement range of 500km or longer, making it by far the longest ranged air to air missile in the world. Previous images of the missile are thought to have shown its flight testing phases, with the latest image potentially being the first showing it in active service. The only other air to air weapon with a comparably long reach is the Russian R-37M with a 400km range, which has over the past 18 months been extensively combat tested with positive results in the Ukrainian theatre. A compact derivative of this is currently being developed for Russia’s Su-57 stealth fighter under the izdeliye 810 program. To place these ranges in perspective, the longest ranged American air to air missile is currently the AIM-120D with an estimated 180km range. The PL-XX was developed to facilitate the targeting of high value aircraft at very long distances, including assets such as airborne tankers, AEW&C aircraft, and strategic bombers.
The J-16 has long expected to be the primary aircraft, and perhaps the only one, to deploy the PL-XX. The fighters seen in the image released on November 2 were seen carrying four different classes of air to air missile including PL-10 infrared guided visual range missiles, PL-15 long range air to air missiles, the PL-XX, and unusually the older PL-12 which is a direct predecessor to the PL-15. The heavyweight aircraft have significantly longer ranges and carry much larger radars than any fighter classes in the Western world, and are much improved derivatives of the Soviet Su-27 Flanker design with significantly more advanced avionics and greater use of composite materials than rival Flanker models developed in Russia. While China has since 2017 fielded more capable heavyweight fighters with the introduction of the J-20 fifth generation stealth fighter, requirements for stealth aircraft to carry weapons in internal bays to retain their reduced radar cross sections has prevented the integration of such oversized weapons onto the aircraft.
The PL-XX is reported to use dual radar and infrared seekers, which combined with data links allow it to be guided by fighter pilots and AEW&C platform personnel ensuring maximum reliability when engaging targets. J-16 units carrying the missiles are considered perfect complements for the fast growing fleet of J-20 stealth fighters, with the J-20s able to safely deploy much further forward due to their stealth capabilities and use their very large radars to provide key targeting data on enemy assets, which can then be used to guide PL-XX missiles in flight. While J-16s function as interceptors neutralising high value targets, J-20s are well optimised to engaging enemy fighters and were designed for air superiority missions at the very high end. With J-20 production expected to reach 120 aircraft per year in 2025, as capabilities rapidly improve between successive batches, production of KJ-500 AEW&C aircraft for both the PLA Air Force and the Navy has also increased very significantly. The PL-XX’s entry into service poses a particularly significant challenge to the United States and its allies due to their very heavy reliance on support aircraft such as tankers and AEW&C aircraft for operations particularly over the Pacific. Western fighters on average carry far smaller radars and have much shorter ranges than their Chinese and Russian counterparts, which makes deployment of such supporting aircraft vital. American F-22 and F-35 fighters, for example, have combat radii under half that of the J-20, with the gap expected to widen from 2024 as new J-20 units integrate WS-15 engines. Should assets such as E-3 and E-7 AEW&C ‘flying radar’ aircraft and KC-135 tankers be denied the ability to operate over the Pacific, America’s ability to wage an air campaign in the region will be seriously curtailed.