The Buzz

Russia and China Could Crush the U.S. Air Force in a War Using This Trick

The R-37M is likely to utilize a combination of inertial guidance with course corrections from the launch aircraft and active radar guidance for the terminal phase. During combat operations, aircraft like the MiG-31 would make a high-speed dash towards its target and launch a salvo of R-37Ms. The Foxhound would likely track the target with its enormous Zaslon-M phased array radar and feed data to the missile until the weapons’ own radar went active. It might also have a home-on-jam feature similar to the one found onboard the U.S.-made AIM-120D AMRAAM to counter airborne electronic attack aircraft such as the Boeing EA-18G Growler.

The Soviet Union was well aware that one of NATO and the United States Air Force’s primary advantages was their ability to run a coordinated air campaign using assets such as the AWACS. The Soviet Union explored a variety of methods to counter aircraft such as the AWACS—including passive-homing long-range air-to-air weapons. “As I understand, the theme of air-to-air missiles with passive radar homing was popular in the Soviet Union in the 1980s (see also R-27P), but is now recognized as unpromising,” Barabanov said.

While the RVV-BD is a fearsome weapon, Moscow might be developing an even more capable missile called the Novator KS-172—which is sometimes also called the K-100. While the RVV-BD is thought to have a maximum range of less than 200 nautical miles, the Novator-designed weapon might be able to engage targets as far away as 250 nautical miles. “200 plus nautical miles is too steep for the R-37M,” Kofman said. “It is only Novator that makes something for targets at those ranges.  That would be something like the KS-172 that was designed to try and hit beyond 200 miles.”

However, it is unclear when or even if the KS-172/K-100 missile will ever complete development and enter production. There are indications that the K-100 is likely a long-dormant project that might never see the light of day. “With the K-100 they were looking for Indian money to finish development,” Kofman said. “Nice missile from Novator, but I doubt it will see operational status—no need for that kind of a long poke to fit on any fifth-gen aircraft.”

Indeed, Moscow-based Barabanov said that the K-100 has likely been terminated. “As for the K-100 missile, I have my doubts that this an active program,” Barabanov said. “I think that the work on it stopped a long time ago.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, China is developing the ramjet-powered PL-15 that could have a range as great as 120 miles. The PL-15 weapon has caused consternation within the top-ranks of the U.S. Air Force with Air Combat Command commander Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle citing the Chinese weapon as one of the pressing reasons for the United States to develop a next-generation replacement for the decades-old AIM-120 AMRAAM.

“How do we counter that and what are we going to do to continue to meet that threat?” Carlisle asked during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last year. Later, during an interview with Flightglobal, Carlisle said that countering the new Chinese missile was an “exceedingly high priority” for the U.S. Air Force. “The PL-15 and the range of that missile, we’ve got to be able to out-stick that missile,” Carlisle said.

Indeed, the problem is not just that the PL-15 would out-range the AMRAAM, when coupled with the J-20, the Chinese could attack the tankers and ISR aircraft that would be the key enablers during any air campaign over the Pacific. A 2008 RAND briefing suggested that in order to sustain F-22 operations over Taiwan from Guam, the U.S. Air Force would need to launch three to four tanker sorties per hour to deliver 2.6 million gallons of fuel. That’s a fact that has not likely escaped Beijing’s notice.

While there is not much concrete data available about the J-20, the aircraft appears to have been optimized to high-speeds, long-range, stealth and a heavy internal payload. With a combination of reduced radar cross-section and high supersonic speed—armed with internally carried PL-15 missiles—it is possible that the J-20 could be used to threaten U.S. Air Force tankers and ISR assets in the Pacific theatre. As pointed out in the 2008 RAND study—Chinese derivatives of the Su-27 Flanker all but annihilated U.S. tanker, ISR, maritime patrol and command and control aircraft during a simulation using long-range air-to-air missiles.