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
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
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.
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.