The Chinese Air Force’s current standard Short Range Air to Air Missile is the PL-8, a license production version of the Israeli Python 3 missile. Upgrades to the PL-8 have kept it relatively competitive since its initial entry into service in the late 1980s, however the need for a new generation SRAAM to keep up with the latest capabilities in advanced air forces around the world became quite clear to Chinese military observers as the world entered the new millennium.
These new SRAAMs were dubbed “5th generation” SRAAMs, and the most prominent of these missiles were the Russian R-73 family and the US AIM-9X family.
So called “5th generation” SRAAMs feature certain common capabilities including gimballed seekers providing high off bore sight capability (usually up to 90 degrees), allowing a pilot to lock onto targets significantly deviated from (or even directly behind) the launch aircraft’s nose, which is traditionally where an SRAAM’s seeker was limited to being cued to. These SRAAMs also feature thrust vectoring nozzles, providing exceptional manoeuvrability. Countermeasure resistant imaging infrared guidance and lock on after launch guidance are also hallmarks of these modern SRAAMs. All together, these capabilities allow fighters equipped with such SRAAMs to effectively “allow the missiles to do the manoeuvring” and are exceptionally difficult to fool with current flares or decoys.
In the late 2000s, some leaked pictures appeared to depict PL-10 without midbody strakes or forward fins, in a configuration similar to the British ASRAAM or South African A-Darter. Initially, the PL-10 was apparently designated the PL-ASR (ASR standing for “Advanced Short Range”), before PL-10 was settled as its designation.
However, the design of PL-10 appeared to changed fairly significantly through its development cycle to reach its present state. The current configuration is not dissimilar to that of the German IRIS-T or Japanese AAM-5. All three missile types feature tail fins as well as midbody strakes. PL-10 also features additional smaller, barely noticeable fins near its forward body.
As expected for such an important project, reliable specifications of PL-10 are unavailable, however one supposed interview with PL-10’s chief designer listed certain specifications including the missile being 89kg in weight, 3 meters in length, with a range exceeding 20km. However, the source of these numbers did not appear to be Chinese state media (the programme was shown on commercial network Hubei Television), and are thus potentially less reliable.
Superficially, these initial numbers do appear possible, although the range of 20km is a little conservative given the range of other equivalent SRAAMs. But then again, 20km was described as a minimum number, and thus the actual maximum effective range of the missile is likely to be somewhat greater and would never have been disclosed on television to begin with, even assuming the Hubei TV programme was reliable.
Note: it is important to recognize that the effective range of any missile is dependent upon the characteristics of the launch platform (including its speed, altitude, heading) as well as the characteristics of the target (including its own speed, altitude, heading, and any potential evasive manoeuvres it may deploy).
Mock ups of PL-10 were first sighted on Chinese Air Force fighter aircraft in 2013, including J-20 prototypes and J-16 prototypes. Since then, J-10Bs and J-10Cs have also been sighted carrying PL-10s. It has also been rumoured that a number of successful test firings of PL-10 have been conducted from J-10B/C and J-16 platforms, though naturally the Chinese Air Force has remained mum on this issue. However it is fairly well accepted that as of early 2016, the PL-10 is on the cusp of entering frontline service, if not having done so already.
Over the next few years, it is likely PL-10 will become the standard SRAAM for front line Chinese Air Force fighter aircraft, as they percolate down from newer fighters like J-20, J-10B/C, J-16, to older J-10As and J-11B/BS. It is likely that new aircraft currently undergoing early flight testing such as J-16D and J-11D will also be equipped with it in due course.
One factor which has yet to be determined is whether the PL-10 will be accompanied by an advanced helmet mounted cuing system or helmet mounted display to take full advantage of its expected high off boresight capability. The Chinese Air Force has equipped many of its Flankers and possibly some of its J-10s with more primitive Russian derived helmet mounted sights, however the Chinese Air Force does not yet seem to have a universal and advanced cuing system such as the JHMCS II or the Scorpion HMCS in service. Considering the fact that PL-10 will be equipped aboard a number of future Chinese fighter aircraft, having a helmet cuing system or display that can be fit atop existing helmets would likely be of great benefit.
The technology for helmet cuing systems is likely well within the capabilities of the Chinese avionics industry, and demonstrations and mock ups of such products have been shown at past air shows, and it is expected that J-20 will almost certainly be fit with an advanced helmet mounted display to complement its heads up display. However having a universal, fleet wide helmet cuing system for the new PL-10 will also greatly benefit the fighter fleet’s overall capabilities.