Air Weapons: June 7, 2004


There is another missile gap on the horizon. This one involves the new Chinese PL-12 air-to-air radar guided missile. U.S. Air Force lobbyists are claiming that the PL-12 is 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 U.S. Air Force is engaged in a battle with Congress over how many new F-22 fighters it can build. The air force wants 400 or more, while Congress is thinking 200 or less. 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. 

The first time a missile gap was used to get money out of Congress was in the late 1950s. Rumors began leaking out of the Pentagon back then that the Russians were ahead of the United States in ICBM technology, making America vulnerable to an unstoppable Russian missile attack. Decades later, when intelligence information was declassified, it was found that there never was any missile gap, and the intel people knew it. In fact, the Russians were way behind the United States in several key technical areas needed to build capable and reliable ICBMs. It was the Russians who had a missile gap problem, and they were never able to close the gap.

The new gap, between the Chinese PL-12 and the American AMRAAM missile, appears very similar to that 1950s gap. AMRAAM (AIM-120) entered service in 1992, more than 30 years after the first radar guided air-to-air missile (the AIM-7 Sparrow) entered service. Vietnam provided ample evidence that AIM-7 wasnt 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, with 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, and over half of those 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 is supposed to undergo its first flight tests this year.

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. 

Therefore, the new missile gap is bogus, as it ignores all the other components of air superiority, as well as the track record of Russian missiles and current dismal state of Chinese pilot training. Even if the China suddenly decided to train a large number of pilots to Western standards, they would have to spend more money than the United States does to obtain the same payoff. The high tech Su-30 fighters China has been buying from Russia are still using crappy Russian engines. The major problem with Russia aircraft has always been the efficiency and durability of their engines. To fly the number of hours required to get pilots up to Western skill levels would require more replacement engines than are needed for American fighters. China is paying the same price for jet fuel as the United States is. While China doesnt pay its pilots or ground crews as much as the U.S. Air Force does, thats a minor portion of the overall cost (which is mainly spare parts, particularly engines and fuel.) 

Its interesting to note, that the U.S. Navy is confident that its F-18E/AMRAAM combination is at least as effective as the F-15C/AMRAAM and capable of dealing with any foreseeable aerial opponent. And the navy is likely to encounter new airborne threats before the air force does. 

The U.S. Air Force has invested billions of dollars, and the careers of many of its senior generals, into the F-22. They really want it to succeed and get built in large numbers. The F-22s chances are increased if there is a major threat out there for it to deal with. If one doesnt exist, one can always be invented. It worked in the late 1950s when the air force wanted a blank check to build ICBMs. Maybe the missile gap gambit will work again.




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