Images of a Chinese aircraft fitted with what appears to be a very-long-range air-to-air missile have recently appeared online. Douglas Barrie takes a closer look.

China's very-long-range missile

By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace

The recent sighting of what appears to be a very-long-range air-to-air missile on a Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker derivative should have been of little surprise; after all, Moscow had first considered such a weapon in the mid-1980s. The weapon in question, however, is not Russian but Chinese.

Images were released on the internet in November 2016 of a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force two-seat Flanker, likely a J-16, fitted with large missiles on inboard pylons. The weapon is well over five metres in length; by comparison, the medium-range US-manufactured AIM-120 AMRAAM is 3.7m long. Given the aerodynamic configuration and size of the weapon, a likely application is that of a missile intended to be used at extended ranges to engage large, high-value and non-manoeuvring targets, such as tankers or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and airborne early-warning aircraft. Using a very high, lofted trajectory it would appear that an engagement range well beyond 300 kilometres is feasible.

A very-long-range missile could provide the launch aircraft with the ability to engage high-value targets without having first to penetrate any defensive fighter screen. The range of the weapon could also mean that even if non-stealthy aircraft using it were detected by an opponent's fighter screen, they would remain beyond the engagement envelope for any defensive medium-range air-to-air missile.

Russia's Novator missile company had first shown a weapon in this class in 1995. Known variously as the KS-172, K-100 and AAM-L, the missile used a two-stage design with a larger diameter booster motor fitted to a narrower diameter second stage. Originally intended to meet – or at least compete for – a Soviet/Russian long-range-missile requirement, Moscow has offered the design for export, including as part of the weapons fit for the Sukhoi Su-35. One Su-35 brochure identified the missile as the K-100-1. Meanwhile, Russia appears to have retained the Vympel R-37M (AA-13 Axhead) as the only long-range air-to air missile in its inventory. The R-37M is carried by the MiG-31BM Foxhound, and it has also been offered for export as an option as part of the weapons package for the Su-35. 

The Chinese design, meanwhile, has a constant diameter but may well use a two-stage configuration with boost and sustainer solid-propellant motors to achieve the desired range. Using a lofted trajectory, where the missile climbs to perhaps 24,000–27,000m to minimise atmospheric resistance, would help extend the range. The missile would initially be lofted at an acute climb angle to rapidly gain altitude; a sustainer motor would then ignite and, following burn-out, the missile could then use a glide trajectory to extend its range. The shape of the weapon, however, does not suggest a great deal of body lift. For instance, the imagery does not show even a narrow mid-body wing on the missile.

Target acquisition and mid-flight data updates present challenges at extended ranges, even against non-manoeuvring subsonic aircraft, and in this case third-party targeting is a possibility. Another platform, most likely another aircraft but potentially a ground-based radar, could pass track data to the launch aircraft, for instance when the launch aircraft's own radar is not able to identify the intended target.

The Military Balance 2017released on 14 February 2017, features analysis of China’s military capabilities, displaying key forces by role, equipment inventories and defence economics. Print copies are available to order.

The Military Balance is The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual assessment of the military capabilities and defence economics of 171 countries worldwide. It is an essential resource for those involved in security policymaking, analysis and research.

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The Military Balance 2017

The Military Balance is the authoritative assessment of the military capabilities and defence economics of 171 countries.