Air Weapons: Will It Work?


October 20,2008:  The biggest question mark in any future air-to-air battle between roughly equal opponents is counter-measures. This became an issue half a century ago, as the United States introduced the first effective air-to-air missile; the heat seeking Sidewinder (AIM-9). This simple missile eclipsed the earlier concept for air-to-air guided missiles, best exemplified by the Sidewinder's contemporary, the radar guided AIM-7 Sparrow. Eventually, Sparrow was replaced by a seemingly much more effective AIM-120 AMRAAM. Meanwhile, Russia developed apparently inferior copies of the AIM-9, AIM-7 and AMRAAM.

A few years ago, China introduced the PL-12 air-to-air radar guided missile. U.S. Air Force lobbyists claimed that the PL-12 was superior to the similar American AMRAAM missile, and that Chinese Su-30 fighters carrying the PL-12 would be superior to the current top-dog combination of American F-15Cs carrying AMRAAM. The air force claims that only the faster, stealthier F-22, carrying AMRAAM, can clear the skies of Chinese Su-30s armed with PL-12s. All that depends on how good the two missiles actually are, and how effective each sides countermeasures are.

AMRAAM entered service in 1992, more than 30 years after the first radar guided air-to-air missile (the AIM-7) entered service. Vietnam provided ample evidence that AIM-7 wasn't really ready for prime time. Too many things could go wrong. Several versions later, the AIM-7 got another combat test during the 1991 Gulf War. While 88 AIM 7s were launched, only 28 percent scored a hit. The AIM 9 Sidewinder did worse, with 97 fired and only 12.6 percent making contact. That said, most of these hits could not have been obtained with cannon, especially when the AIM 7 was used against a target that was trying to get away. AMRAAM was designed to fix all the reliability and ease-of-use problems that cursed the AIM-7. But AMRAAM has only had a few opportunities to be used in combat, although 77 percent of the 13 launched have hit something.

The Chinese PL-12 is based on the Russian AA-12, which is regarded as the Russian attempt to produce a missile equal to AMRAAM. The AA-12 is similar in size and weight, weighing 385 pounds (versus 335 for AMRAAM) , 11.9 feet long (12 feet), 200mm in diameter (178mm). The AA-12 has a max range of 90 kilometers (compared to 70 for AMRAAM). The AA-12 has yet to be used in combat. Russian missiles, historically, have been less reliable and effective than their Western counterparts. The Russian missiles are not worthless, they are just less likely to knock down aircraft they are aimed at. The Chinese obviously see flaws in the AA-12 and want to improve that design so that it is more competitive with AMRAAM. The Chinese are eager to create an effective competitor for AMRAAM that they can export (they are already offering the export version of the, the SB-10, for sale.) The PL-12 has, so far, not demonstrated an extraordinary abilities.

But it takes more than a reasonably reliable clone of AMRAAM to threaten sixty years of U.S. Air Force air superiority. As the United States discovered during World War II, pilot quality and tactics were more important than spiffy hardware. The greatest danger to American air superiority is an opponent who spends a lot of effort, and money, on pilot training. China is showing signs of moving in that direction, but is a long way from getting there.

Pilot quality aside, there is the issue of countermeasures. Some of these are involved with pilot training and capability. Countermeasures are much more effective when used by a more capable pilot. But countermeasures are mostly about technology. This ranges from sensors that will detect incoming missiles, to electronic devices that will deceive the rapidly approaching missiles. How countermeasures work is kept secret, more so than how the missiles themselves operate. Both the Chinese and the American missiles and countermeasures work differently, sometimes only slightly. If either side finds out more about how the others missiles and countermeasures, they can tweak their own missiles to be more lethal, and their aircraft to be less vulnerable. China has been making vigorous efforts to obtain U.S. military secrets, with some success. Exactly how much success won't known until there is a war. So when U.S. warplanes go up against their Chinese counterparts with radar guided missiles, all will be revealed. If it's a short war, there won't be much time to make changes. A longer war will be different, and the greater technological and industrial resources of the United States will prevail. But a short war, over the defense of Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, is more likely. This keeps a lot of U.S. Air Force generals awake at night.


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