Shot Up

09.25.15 5:00 AM ET

The New Chinese Missile That Has the U.S. Air Force Spooked

America has spent hundreds of billions on stealthy fighter jets to rule tomorrow’s skies. Could a new Chinese weapon negate that edge?

The U.S. Air Force—the most powerful military service of its kind on the planet—is nothing if not confident. So it’s exceedingly rare to hear the service’s top officers publically express alarm about specific weapons of potential enemies.

That’s why it was a big, big deal when Gen. Herbert Carlisle, the head of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, twice mentioned with concern a new Chinese air-to-air missile in mid-September. The missile, called the PL-15, boasts a sophisticated radar seeker and a powerful rocket motor, giving it the potential to hit targets from 60 miles away or more—at least as far as American jets can fire their own missiles.

“Look at our adversaries and what they’re developing, things like the PL-15 and the range of that weapon,” Carlisle said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., on September 15—the same day that China reportedly test-fired the PL-15 for the first time. “How do we counter that and what are we going to do to continue to meet that threat?” Carlisle asked rhetorically.

The very next day, Flight Global magazine published an interview with Carlisle in which the general doubled down on his worried tone. “The PL-15 and the range of that missile, we’ve got to be able to out-stick [sic] that missile,” he said, using an Air Force term for “out-shoot.”

Now, it’s clear that the PL-15 is one sophisticated missile. What’s less clear is whether the missile itself is actually any better than America’s own main air-to-air weapon, the AIM-120. Indeed, in the wake of Carlisle’s comments, Air Combat Command hinted that it’s not just the capabilities of a single PL-15 that have got Carlisle and presumably other Air Force leaders so worried—it’s how many PL-15s the Chinese air force could fire at one time.

“Few weapons operate in a vacuum,” Maj. Michael Meridith, an Air Combat Command spokesman, told The Daily Beast in an email. “We are interested in a wide variety of operational characteristics like payload, guidance system, warhead type, portability, guidance, resistance to countermeasures, reliability/maintainability, speed, range, etc., which are different based on the weapons system and the other capabilities it employed with.”

Consider that China’s J-11 fighters—versions of the iconic Russian Flanker jet—could, with upgrades, haul as many as 12 missiles the size of the PL-15, plus two smaller missiles, for a staggering 14 weapons in total.

By comparison, the U.S. Air Force’s top-of-the-line F-22 in its normal configuration carries a maximum of six AIM-120 missiles and two shorter-range Sidewinders.

That’s because, since the Cold War, American fighter design has emphasized stealth—the ability to avoid detection by radar. Stealth requires a smooth silhouette, which minimizes the reflection of radar waves. That means keeping weapons in internal bomb bays. But there’s less room in a bay than there is underwing and under the fuselage, where Chinese jets hang their own munitions.

Stealth is an advantage in certain situation, but in a straight-up fight it can result in a weapons deficit for the stealthy side. In the case of F-22s versus J-11s, the deficit for the American side is up to six missiles per jet. And it gets worse. Owing to their high cost, the U.S. Air Force bought just 195 F-22s. China has no fewer than 300 of the cheaper J-11s and counting, plus hundreds of smaller J-10s and other jets.

The Air Force is comfortable with the F-22’s smaller weapons load because the plane’s ability to avoid dectection should make it harder to hit, thus partially negating the enemy’s firepower advantage.

But there are too few F-22s, according to Carlisle. He called the Pentagon’s 2009 decision to end F-22 production the “biggest mistake ever.” To maintain a lead over the Chinese military and other potential enemies, the Pentagon is buying hundreds of new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. But in its own stealthy configuration, this plane carries even fewer missiles than the F-22 does—just two AIM-120s.

“The PL-15 is only one of the worries,” Peter Goon, an analyst for the Air Power Australia think tank, told The Daily Beast. “The bigger one is the fact the F-35A JSF carries only two AIM-120s—that will be keeping [Carlisle] up at night.”

It’s not hard to imagine the outcome if American fighter squadrons ever met in battle with Chinese squadrons packing potentially seven times as many missiles, each of which is the equal of America’s own latest munition.

It should come as no surprise, then, that one American company is offering to add missiles to some older U.S. jets. The same day that Carlisle worried aloud about the PL-15 and the Chinese first test-fired the new missile, Boeing proposed to add new weapons pylons to old F-15s, doubling the venerable fighter’s load of AIM-120s to an unprecedented 16, two more missiles than even an upgraded J-11 can carry.

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“It is something we know is of interest to the Air Force,” Boeing Vice President Mike Gibbons told Flight Global.

The flying branch still owns more than 200 F-15 1970s- and 1980s-vintage air-to-air fighters. They’re not stealthy like the F-22s are, but Carlisle said the two plane types could team up, with the F-22s acting like a “quarterback,” detecting and selecting targets for the older jets.

Now that China has an air-to-air missile that’s at least as good as America’s own plane-killing weapon and the ability to haul more of the munitions into battle, Boeing’s idea might be the Air Force’s best way to match the Chinese—and to give Carlisle a good night’s sleep.