China Reveals New AMRAAM
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — China has revealed a next-generation airto-air missile that the state-run People’s Daily called a “trump card” and a “secret weapon for gaining air superiority.” The Beijing newspaper published its report on May 19, during a week of visits to U.S. bases and meetings with senior U.S. defense officials by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chief of general staff, Gen. Chen Bingde.
Dubbed the “Key Model,” the new missile is believed by U.S. analysts to be the PL-12D, a variant of the PL-12 family of air-to-air missiles (AAMs) produced by the Luoyang Electro-Optics Technology Development Center.
China arms its fighter jets with the PL-12A, which closely resembles the U.S. AIM-120 medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) in appearance and capabilities, and it exports the SD-10A.
The newspaper said the new weapon “exceeded the U.S. AIM-120D missile” in seven recent tests in the Gobi Desert. The AIM-120D, the latest AMRAAM variant, has not yet been fielded.
“I’m not surprised at all about this, given the Chinese gift for missile-making,” said a U.S. specialist on Chinese missiles. “Clearly, the Air Force air-to-air mission has become a big prestige-garnering mechanism for the PLA, and while it’s nothing our Air Force needs to worry too much about, it’s certainly going to raise the stakes in India, Japan and Taiwan.” The analyst said the situation reminded him of the unveiling of the J-20 stealth fighter during U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent visit to China.
“What is interesting is that the People’s Daily is touting it — and while the big PLA delegation is in town” in Washington, he said.
The timing appears “counterproductive and pride-driven,” especially when Taiwan is pushing the U.S. to release new F-16C/D fighters and upgrades for older F-16A/Bs, he said.
The PL-12D might use a new active/passive guidance system, said Richard Fisher, a China defense analyst at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, an Alexandria, Va., think tank.
“This kind of combined guidance system confers concealment/stealth advantages, while the passive mode also uses less battery power, allowing the missile to achieve its maximum range,” Fisher said.
The People’s Daily report said that Fan Huitao spent 10 years developing the “Key Model.” Described as the “chief model designer” who took over the project in 2000, Fan began working for Luoyang after graduating in 1986 from China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University.
Though Chinese media reports called the missile a breakthrough for indigenous technology, Fisher said, “There is a high probability that Luoyang relied on Ukrainian and Russian technology for the latest seeker, as it did for its earlier versions.” Some Chinese-language blogs said a ramjet powers the new missile, but Fisher said he was not convinced.
“Nevertheless, it is a troubling development,” he said. “That the PLA could field an AAM featuring an active/passive guidance system potentially before the U.S. deploys [the AIM-120D] is not where we want to be.”