The Race for Next Generation Air-to-Air Missiles: Range, Sensors & Future Air Dominance
At its core, a lot of the technological race for future air superiority is about bringing different systems and technologies together. In previous episodes we've covered two of them, the new, incredibly expensive and advanced, 6th generation fighter fleets and the drones and unmanned systems that we expect to be supporting them. In these technological areas it seems like the US is still very much at the front of the curve. But unless you decide that ramming someone with a $200 million jet is a good idea, even the most advanced fighters and combat drones on the planet are ultimately going to rely on their missiles to shoot down their opponents. And in that respect even the US's most advanced 5th generation aircraft like the F-35 and F-22 are still reliant on upgraded versions of the missiles the US took into Desert Storm in 1991, the AIM-9 Sidewinder and the AIM-120 AMRAAM.
When introduced, those systems were probably best in class, but in the intervening years the rest of the world has moved on. Chinese and European manufacturers now both offer missiles that can outrange America's AMRAAM. And as air forces continue the process of updating their inventories, the future balance may hinge on who can field the best missiles to arm their next generation fighter and drone fleets. And so today we are going to scan the field of global air-to-air missiles, asking if and how America fell behind, and how it looks like they are planning to catch back up.
To do that I'll start with a brief history of air-to-air weapon systems and the missile evolution. And then continue into the future by asking how missiles might fit into future air combat, and what lessons the war in Ukraine might be teaching. Then so we have a way to evaluate missiles against each other, I'll ask what makes a good missile, before testing some of those criteria against both the US inventory and the rest of the field: Russia, China and the European Union. Having established that, yeah, American fighters are beginning to get a bit out-gunned here, I'll close out by looking at some of America's next generation missile programs. And ask what impact they might have on the future balance.
As always sources will be in the description, but I do want to give a special mention to a report by Professor Justin Bronk over at RUSI, covering Russian and Chinese air combat capabilities. OK, so let's start with some brief history about how aircraft have gone about shooting down other aircraft. The preface here is that through history, technology has dramatically changed the answer to a number of questions when it comes to air combat.
How far, how fast, how high can you fly? What weather grounds you? And what threats can those poor sods on the ground ultimately pose to you, the pilot above it all? But for this episode we are primarily concerned with how technology changes the answer to three specific questions. Namely in air combat terms: how far can you see, how far can you shoot, and how accurate and effective can that shot be while evading whatever comes back in the other direction? And in the earliest days of air-to-air combat the sensor system in question, namely the eyes of the air crew, had a massive range advantage over the primary weapon systems. Shockingly enough, when military aircraft first encountered each other in large numbers during the First World War, guided air-to-air missiles were not yet standard issue.
Instead, the primary weapon of choice was going to be the gun. In the very earliest days that might have meant crews blasting away each other with shotguns like the world's weirdest duck hunt. But very quickly the machine gun, and later on things like the 20mm cannon, would become the primary air-to-air armaments of aircraft for decades. A key misconception I want to avoid here however is that technology didn't move forward during the gun era. Rather there were incremental advances in both range and efficacy.
Moving to larger calibres and new generation ammunition increased range and lethality. And while the basic maxim of point the fighter in the direction of whatever it is you want to shoot at remained basically the same (unless of course you were the Royal Air Force while it was going through its turret fighter stage) in terms of accuracy there was all the difference in the world between a hand-aimed machine gun in World War One, and a Cold War-era radar-assisted gun sight. But a pilot could still see much further than they could effectively shoot.
So for designers and theoreticians moving to missiles was an incredibly attractive prospect. Unlike a bullet, a missile would be able to manoeuvre during flight, increasing the probability of a hit. And with an on-board propulsion system like a rocket motor it would also be able to reach out considerably further. The US Air Force and Navy were particularly keen on the concept. And so when they introduced their next generation F-4 Phantom in December 1960, it was a fast moving brick of an aircraft with a heavy missile armament, two man crew, and a large radar which would enable it to get the best out of its entirely missile armament. The radar would theoretically extend the range of a pilot's situational awareness, and the AIM-7 Sparrow was meant to provide the means to convert that increased awareness into burning MiGs.
The US took this next generation monster to Vietnam where it was mostly matched up against older, less expensive, less advanced, and primarily gun-armed opponents. And it immediately did - OK. Reportedly when 4 Phantoms encountered 4 MiG-17s on April 9th 1965, post action analysis showed the American aircraft had fired 10 missiles to score one hit. One Phantom would be lost in turn, and while the Phantom would generally maintain a significant kill/loss ratio lead over its MiG opponents, that didn't stop the US and other F-4 operators rapidly strapping a gun pod to the thing to at least give the pilots an option. While almost all other Cold War fighters and interceptors would make the choice to go forward with missile technology, but pay the weight and internal volume penalty necessary to fit a gun in there too. The lessons here are probably things like don't overly rely on a technology before it is ready.
Or to give personnel as many good tools as possible so they have an answer to whatever situation they encounter. All the while however missile and sensor technology was continuing to evolve, with better radar providing pilots with situational awareness over larger and larger distances. And so missile technology obviously had to continue to evolve in order to capitalise on the advantages that better sensors were giving.
These missiles enabled Beyond Visual Range (or BVR) engagements. And through the Cold War, all major air forces fell into a pattern of having at least two missiles. A short-ranged, agile, usually heat-seeking missile for dog fighting. And a longer range missile, usually reliant on active or semi-active radar guidance, to enable pilots to send their regards to each other well over the horizon.
Basically everyone developed a BVR capability, and some like the US Navy, developed very BVR capabilities. Faced with the threat of Soviet aircraft firing very long-range anti-ship cruise missiles, potentially with nuclear warheads, the Navy decided it didn't like scenarios where it couldn't shoot back, and developed the combination of the F-14 Tomcat and AIM-54 Phoenix. In its C version, the Phoenix weighed more than 1,000 pounds, or about 460 kilos, had a listed operational range of approximately 100 nautical miles, about 180 kilometres. And was such a big boy of a missile that if a Tomcat took off with a full load of 6 of them, it would be too heavy on return for a safe carrier landing. Leaving the pilot with a choice between jettisoning one or more very expensive missiles, or alternatively just picking a nearby target and starting World War Three because after all, it would be a shame to waste one. Phoenix left US service within a few years of the Tomcats that carried them.
But by Desert Storm in 1991 the US had both of its mainstay air-to-air missiles that we'll talk about today. The AIM-9 Sidewinder is the short range option, and the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (or AMRAAM) is what would eventually become every American pilot's preferred option for downing targets at a distance. This missile was a serious step up from what had come before. And during the 1990s whenever the AMRAAM encountered targets, whether that be an Iraqi MiG-25 or Serbian MiG-29s, the resulting encounter was exactly the way the US Air Force likes it, crushingly unfair and one-sided. In the 2020s however, there is no doubt that air combat technology is changing.
Better sensors, unmanned systems, and an entirely new generation of fighters are beginning to take the stage. So let's ask the question: how may the air combat environment be changing? And what a military is likely to want missiles to bring to the table in that environment in order to deter, and if necessary defeat, potential competitors? And in answering that question I want to stress that there has never been universal agreement on what the future of air combat looks like. For example, during parts of the Cold War you had different schools of thought as to what ranges future air combats were likely to be fought at, and as a result, what made a good aircraft and a good set of missiles. At one extreme you had the school of thought that very much still put agility front and centre. Often they foresaw relatively short engagement ranges, perhaps because many aircraft would be keeping their radars in passive mode in order to avoid detection, and as a result they wanted to be ready for the dog fight. They came up with theories to describe the ideal fighter based on agility and energy, and prized capabilities like the super-manoeuvrability that you see in some 4th generation and 5th generation fighters.
The Soviet (and later Russian) Flanker series for example isn't just a fast aircraft, some versions of it are also extraordinarily agile and capable of some truly insane high-alpha bullshit. Think for example of everyone's air show favourite, the cobra manoeuvre. This is an intense manoeuvre which has plenty of utility, allowing a pilot to do things like impress air show crowds, bleed off a lot of very valuable energy incredibly quickly, and present the maximum possible cross-section of his or her aircraft to an incoming missile to the point where a teenager with 10 hours in DCS would probably be able to get a lock and make the shot. Agility is obviously still a factor in aircraft design and plays a role in certain combat scenarios. Every time someone sets up a within visual range exercise between the F-22 and the Eurofighter, or the F-35 and a clean F-16 for example, agility is one of the factors that might lead to the Eurofighters and the F-16s scoring their very well publicised wins.
Because designers have to make a lot of sacrifices to make an aircraft stealthy, and those design elements don't help you much if the exercise begins at a close enough range that the opponent can get a lock on you using the Mark 1 eyeball. A system that, for the moment, all fighters still come equipped with. At the other extreme were those who foresaw future air combat is basically a game of point and click where the Maverick of the future doesn't get into any dramatic dog fights blasting Sukhoi 57s out of the sky with his aircraft's cannon.
But instead increasingly capable sensors would identify targets at very long distances, data links and better fusion would enable those sensors to convert those blips into high confidence targets. And the role of the fighter aircraft, or later on the drone supporting them, would primarily be just to yeet very long-range missiles at those blips until they went away. In this sort of fighting the most valuable attributes for an aircraft probably wouldn't be agility, but rather its senses, its data link, the capability of its missiles, and factors like speed and altitude that would give those missiles their range.
And in the 21st century, while no doubt debates will continue, most forces seem to be proceeding on the understanding that technology, awareness and reach are probably much more important than factors like sheer agility. With modern air combat often coming from the Han Solo school of thought, where whoever shoots first is likely to win. Because an aircraft that's been fired on might be hit and destroyed. And even if it isn't, it is probably spending its time and energy evading that missile rather than focusing on continuing its mission or fighting back. As a RUSI report (which you'll find linked in the description) put it, "Modern air combat is determined first and foremost by which side is able to generate and sustain superior situational awareness over the other. This is governed by a combination of superior sensors, signature minimisation, data link enabled sharing of information between different assets, in-cockpit interfaces and crew proficiency.
A situational awareness advantage will allow one side to position assets and then manoeuvre so as to begin and conduct an engagement on the most favourable terms, and at least to get the first shots of an engagement." So all else being equal, if you can see first and decide to shoot first, you probably have the advantage. And because of that, we've seen a massive technological race between the means of detection and the means of avoiding detection. 5th generation aircraft are commonly defined by their adoption of what are commonly called stealthy features that make them harder to detect using radar. While on the other side of the equation the increasingly widespread adoption of Active Electronically Scanned Array radars are both much harder to jam and much harder to trace than older systems.
So some aircraft are going to be able to see further and more safely than older versions, increasing the pilot's situational awareness. Adding the ability to connect multiple sensors together using data links and then fuse it together into something cohesive and useful, and the biggest advances in fighter capability over the last two decades probably haven't been their physical performance so much, but the much increased situational awareness they provide, with pilots seeing further and better than ever before. But remember how far you can see was only one of our three core questions.
This is where having a better missile can be a major advantage. If two blokes meet for a duel on an open field 100 metres apart, but one bloke's carrying a crowbar and the other an AR-15, that absolutely isn't a fair fight. They can both see each other, they both have equal situational awareness, but there is a gross asymmetry in their ability to do anything with that information. As RUSI puts it, "If both sides have relatively comparable situational awareness about the other's position identity and heading prior to getting within missile range, than the side with superior effective missile range has a significant advantage." And to an extent it may even be more important than that, because you can imagine situations where the distance both sides can see isn't equal, but discrepancies in missile range prevent that being the advantage it could be.
Stealth features for example don't make an aircraft invisible, they just reduce the distance at which that aircraft can be detected. But whether the advantage that gives you is crushing or less significant might come down to the range of your missiles. To paraphrase General Kelly of US Air Combat Command, "If you have to push stealth aircraft into ranges where everyone is observable anyway, because for example your limited missile range forces you to do so, then there really isn't much point in having a very expensive stealth fighter force." Being able to see your opponent long before they can see you is great, but it's not quite as great if you can't shoot as far as they can see. And while it's obviously important not to over-learn the lessons of any one conflict, I'd argue the war in Ukraine mostly confirms the great value that being able to see further and shoot further can have. Russia has more modern fighters, more modern missiles, more modern sensors, and VKS fighters will often have an energy advantage because they can fly at high altitudes behind their own air defence systems.
Something which increases the reach of their missiles and decreases the relative reach of Ukrainian ones. And so outside some chaotic situations in the earlier stages of the war, for the most part Russian fighters have been content to lob long-range air-to-air missiles at Ukrainian targets without really having to worry about Ukrainian fighters returning the favour. They are obviously still vulnerable if the Patriot road trip rolls round, but in air-to-air combat terms it's mostly long range and mostly one way.
And Ukraine really probably only gives us a decent picture of air warfare circa 2005, not 2035. In the future, as we've talked about before, the introduction of things like air combat drones will again complicate both the situational awareness and engagement question. Being able to disperse sensors onto networks of data-linked drones might increase situational awareness, making the air battlefield more transparent in the same way the ground has grown more transparent. And at the same time there are plenty of concepts for separating some of the duty for firing missiles from the 5th or 6th generation fighters that can operate in high-risk airspace. Whether that means putting missiles on a drone accompanying the manned platform, or whether that means having other aircraft like a 4th generation missile truck hanging out in a low threat zone carrying a bunch of missiles that it can lob at targets identified by a stealthier, more forward positioned platform.
The importance of that sort of ability to bring a ton of missiles to the fight may indeed be at something of a premium. Because even if the high consumption rates we've seen in Ukraine don't hold true in future conflicts, and they may, the sky is now very likely to be full of drones as well as manned platforms. And you are probably going to want to have enough munitions available to shoot those down as well. So in a nutshell you'll probably be able to see further, and with that growing superpower will come an imperative to be able to shoot further and shoot more often than current fleets and inventories will allow. I've discussed all these concepts before in previous videos, and I'll leave a link in the description if you missed it.
A lot of these employment concepts however, would probably benefit from missiles a little bit different to what countries are fielding today. Small drones might benefit from smaller missiles suitable for their internal storage. A 4th generation missile truck that has to hang back from the fighting might want longer and longer ranged munitions to enable it to engage safely. Or alternatively, you might want more reach to take out the valuable enabling aircraft that the other side might be relying on.
You may not be able to find and target your opponent's 5th or 6th generation fighters, but if you can splash the AWACS aircraft that allows them to see or the tankers that keep them fuelled, then to an extent you might not have to. Of course the pilots of these aircraft know how valuable they are, just ask them, and so (occasional Russian A-50 aside) they are likely to hang back out of regular engagement range. No one is going to have any trouble spotting the giant aircraft with the massive radar dome on top of it.
But if you don't have a missile capable of turning that situational awareness into a kill, then the actual value of that awareness is going to be much diminished. There's also a final point here I think, which could apply to many areas of military or even civilian development, but which I'd argue historically has definitely applied in air-to-air combat, and that's the observation that having an advantage across multiple systems categories, multiple capabilities, is often compounding. With the total result being greater than the sum of its parts. Think of it like this, imagine Pavel is a talented marksman. His unit wants him to start doing long range sniper duty, and he's looking for ways to increase his effectiveness.
You could give him a scope to make it easier to find and aim at targets, but if he's still using a shit-box rifle and ancient ammo, he's probably not going to hit it anyway. Similarly, just handing him a couple of boxes of match grade ammunition might help a bit, but as long as the rifle is still terrible and there is no optic, there's sort of a limit to the upside. But if you start combining improvements, give him an accurised rifle match grade ammunition, a good optic, pair him up with a decent spotter and now you are talking. Similar concepts might apply in air combat.
All else being equal, a pilot with better situational awareness is going to have an advantage. The pilot flying the better plane is going to have an advantage. And the pilot with the better missiles is going to have an advantage. While a pilot with all three is going to violently seal club the opposition, sweep the skies clean like they are an ace combat protagonist.
Then fly back to base, get a bev out of the Esky, and talk to someone about putting the ace markings on their plane. If you want air dominance it might not be enough to have the best planes or the best pilots, you are going to want them to have the best missiles as well. OK, so we've apparently decided that we need better missiles, so your next question is then probably what might make a missile good or bad? Because if there's one constant in designing systems for the military, is that there are always trade-offs. You would probably always like to have more speed, range, and everything that goes into that wonderful umbrella term: kinematic performance. But chasing more of everything blindly is probably going to come with trade-offs. So congratulations, it's time for you to design an air-to-air missile.
And so I'm going to talk you through four of the top level decisions you have to make and factors you are going to have to balance. Step one in this Build-A-Bear-esque journey, pick a propulsion system and your desired performance characteristics. For propulsion two major options would be rocket or ramjet. Most systems out there still use a solid rocket motor. It's simple, proven technology that gives your missile the maximum possible acceleration when you first launch it.
If you want the maximum possible amount of go for 10 seconds after you let rip with the thing, the rocket motor is probably the way to go. The problem is after that rocket motor burns out the missile is mostly coasting. And so some very modern long range air-to-air missiles like the European Meteor use a ramjet instead. That's more complex, it means your missile is probably not going to have as much acceleration right after you launch it.
But because it spreads its burn over a much, much longer period of time, it's going to be more agile in the later stages of its flight. In between you might have an option like a pulse rocket motor, which can split its burn up into multiple segments, but which still doesn't have the same level of flexibility and sustain as the ramjet. In terms of the actual performance characteristics that your propulsion and other factors gives your missile, there's a few obvious ones you're probably going to look to as part of an evaluation. Things like range, speed and agility should be fairly obvious.
Some missiles are optimised to be able to pull high G manoeuvres that would rip the wings off an aircraft and pulp a pilot in their seat. While others might have comparatively much smaller control surfaces to minimise drag and maximise range. They still might be able to embarrass an aircraft held back by the limitations of what the human body can survive, but they might be a little less over the top about it. These and other factors go into contributing to some derived elements that we'll talk about a little more later, but which really come down to shaping that third question we raised at the start: how effectively and accurately can you shoot? Important terms here might be things like Probability of Kill (or PK), which as you have probably guessed is the probability when you fire a missile that it's going to do what it's meant to do and kill the target. While another relevant term would be the no escape zone, which is the area within which if you fire a missile you are going to have a high PK even against a target that knows the attack is coming and they are probably buggered.
All else being equal, more range and performance can probably help with both. Saying that you have a missile in the 100 kilometre maximum range bracket probably doesn't mean that you are going be downing fully aware fighter size targets at 100 kilometres. But the range at which you can effectively do so, your no escape zone, may still be much longer for a 100 kilometre range missile than for a 50 kilometre one.
Of course, all the energy and range in the world isn't going to help you if your missile doesn't have a decent seeker on it. Here again there are a couple of major options, and NATO actually has brevity codes to represent the main ones. Semi-active radar homing is pretty old-school technology at this point. And refers to a missile that relies on the launching aircraft to find the target, keep that target in their sights and guide the missile onto it. The advantage is the system can rely on the probably much larger, more powerful radar on the aircraft itself. But the disadvantages as highlighted in Ukraine with the R-27 missile, is that it means the launching aircraft has to keep their nose pointed at the target all the way until impact.
This is often a great way to get shot down, and a reason the technology has fallen out of favour. But if you do decide to go retro with your design, the NATO brevity code for firing off one of these missiles is "fox 1". Instead more modern missiles are often capable of active radar homing.
This is where the missile itself has a radar in the nose, and so at some point in its flight profile, potentially well after the missile has been launched if we are talking about a lock-after-launch scenario, the missile will acquire the target with its own on-board radar sensor and guide its way in. This is often the option used on longer-ranged air-to-air missiles because it adds the benefit of additional range and a fire-and-forget functionality, where a pilot can fire off a missile and then continue manoeuvring while it makes its way towards the target. The NATO brevity code for these missiles is fox 3.
Then in the middle you have every dog fighter's favourite, fox 2 is the brevity code for IR homing missiles, otherwise known as heat seekers. As advanced as technology has got, no one has yet found a way to make a combat aircraft which doesn't generate a significant amount of heat, leaving an opportunity for IR seekers. This option might limit how far you can shoot compared to a radar homer, but it's not going to trigger a radar warning receiver, and it's not going to care about a lot of the counter-measures a radar seeker would. In terms of rating how good a seeker is, the distance it can see, its reliability, accuracy and resistance to counter measures all matter. That last one is important and is something that Hollywood has been stubbornly ignoring. A traditional counter-measure to fox 2s for example is an aircraft dumping flares behind it.
Because then the seeker is going to see balls of heat everywhere and potentially go chasing after one like a distracted puppy. But more modern IR missiles often use imaging seekers. That means the missile is less likely to do tactically suboptimal things like locking onto the sun, or if suddenly confronted with a bunch of heat signatures after an aircraft dumps flares, then ideally the missile should be able to tell that the correct target is still the one that is in fact shaped like a plane. If you've seen the latest Top Gun film, the OPFOR clearly skipped on that upgrade. I'd also note that even once you have picked your seeker there might be room for more bling. Some missiles can lock on after launch, some can launch off boresight.
Some can take their cues from a pilot's helmet sight, so they merely have to look at a target in order to acquire it. And often those same missiles are the ones that can make off-bore side shots. There are also concepts for missiles that combine multiple seeker types.
And as technology improves, seekers are only going to get better. Now a lot of the things we just talked about: range, speed, the power of the seeker head, or even things like warhead size, can, all else being equal, usually just be increased by making the missile bigger. And it's for that reason that I have to highlight form factor and weight as another design consideration. Because the larger and heavier the missile, the fewer an aircraft can carry, the greater the performance loss caused by carrying it, and in the case of 5th gen fighters whether the weapon will fit inside an internal weapons bay, which is necessary for the whole stealthy thing.
For a fixed warhead size, getting performance out of a smaller missile is going to be harder than if you can design something that weighs as much as an old Mini Minor and sling it under a MiG-31 the way the Russians do. Plus of course while you are making decisions on all of the above, you have to consider cost and availability. Obviously no one's ever going to be unhappy about their missile having really great performance, but if you're undertaking planning for an air force as a whole, you're probably going to prefer to have thousands of decent missiles available, rather than a handful of gold-plated show pieces that you are going to use up on day 1 of a conflict. Put all this together and the answer to what makes a good missile will often depend on the role it is being used for. Most air forces value different aspects for different roles, and as a result keep at least a couple of different missiles in inventory. For the purpose of this presentation though I'm going to broadly split them into three categories.
Comparatively short (mostly visual) range dog-fighting missiles that need to be highly agile, preferably fairly small, and in most air forces are going to combine a solid rocket motor with an IR seeker. Then just about everyone is going to have their beyond visual range missile. Almost certainly with active radar guidance and the range to reach out 100 kilometres or more. But a form factor that's still usually going to be weapons bay friendly.
Finally there's a third category, which can sometimes blur with the second one, and these are your very long-range missiles. And these are generally going to be missiles that sacrifice form factor, they are big, in exchange for even more range. Given the context we started with is improving sensors and the value in being able to shoot as far as you can see, I'm mostly going to be glossing over the shorter ranged missiles. But whatever system we are looking at keep the four factors in mind, propulsion type and kinematic performance, seeker type and capability, form factor, and how much trauma purchasing the thing is going to cause the people at treasury. At this point we are about to start diving into specific missile inventories, so here comes everyone's favourite part of every presentation, some caveats. Firstly, the performance characteristics and technical details of a lot of missiles are going to be highly sensitive and often classified.
Governments may choose to under or over-estimate likely performance in their public releases. And so everything from here on out may be wrong. Secondly, when we are talking about performance characteristics it's not always apples for apples comparisons.
Range for a missile for example is highly contextual. How fast and how high is the launch platform? What's the target, can it manoeuvre, etc? Your range against a cargo aircraft flying 40,000 feet below you but in your direction is going to be much, much further than against an agile fighter at your altitude flying directly away from you. Finally, how a missile actually performs might owe a lot to the systems and the context around it. If you have missiles that can reach well over the horizon for example, but you tell your pilots that they cannot fire unless they first visually identify a target, then you probably shouldn't blame the missile when you don't get many beyond visual range kills. Similarly, to go back to our opening questions, if you don't have the sensors to see a target at long range then you may not derive much utility from missiles that allow you to engage out to that distance.
Alright, fine print out of the way, let's get back to it. We have gone over some features that might make a good missile. So let's move on to looking at the two main air-to-air missiles in the US inventory and how they might stack up.
The AIM-9 Sidewinder is by far the older of the two. The original version of this system entered service in 1956 and first saw combat in 1958. In most of its iterations this has been a relatively light, relatively short range, infrared homing missile, although the missile has come a long way from its original iterations. In its original version for example, the Sidewinder worked best in a tail chase, where the seeker could very clearly make out the giant heat blob that was the enemy's engine and track accordingly. The AIM-9L upgrade from the late 1970s turned the missile into one that could attack from all aspects, which helped increase the proportion of launched missiles that hit their targets from something like 10% to 15% during the Vietnam War to about 80% when used by the British during the Falklands War.
Then in the early 2000s we saw the arrival of the AIM-9X. A new version which gave this old dog some very new tricks. The missile now had an imaging IR seeker that probably didn't give a shit about your flares. Although to be fair, claimed counter-measure resistance is always something of an open question when it comes to most missiles. Compatibility with helmet mounted sights, off-bore sight firing capability, truly insane levels of agility, and despite the missile getting ever closer to its 70th birthday, the new versions and upgrades continue.
So to use our factors from earlier, you have a small form factor, an imaging IR seeker, relatively low cost, insane agility, but in terms of range the official Air Force claim is only "more than 10 miles". At longer ranges since the early 90s, the AMRAAM has been the better option. Progressive upgrades, tuned performance and added features. With a reach of around 100 kilometres for some C versions to an estimated 160 kilometres (or about 86 nautical miles) in the case of the most recent D version.
And as the missile evolved and continued to demonstrate its capabilities, the world took notice. To the point where, as you can see, if you operated a major air force but don't use either French, Russian or Chinese equipment, there were very, very decent odds that you would buy and field AMRAAM. Now if you're wondering why, having fielded a winner in the form of the AIM-120, America didn't get started on fielding a replacement to maintain its dominance. The answer, kind of like in our episode on long range fires, is that they did. For example in the 2010s there was the Next Generation Missile Program, which was intended to replace AMRAAM with a more advanced missile capable of both doing the job of the AIM-120 and also the AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missile.
That missile ended up cancelled in the 2013 budget request. Which might sound like a short-sighted decision in 2023, but you have to remember the context of the time. In 2013 the American military was primarily concerned with counter-insurgency. Russia hadn't yet annexed Crimea, the Europeans were still openly selling weapon systems to the Russian military, and the PLAAF was still years away from introducing the J-20 or the PL-15. And faced with a wide array of competing priorities, time and time again just upgrading the AMRAAM a bit more won out as the preferred option, again and again because the design and infrastructure and tooling and workforce were all there.
With historical production rates somewhere between 5 and 800 missiles per year, reaching nearly 1,200 per annum more recently. The problem with this story for continued prominence for the AIM-9 and AIM-120 is that eventually you can come to be constrained by the core design of something. And eventually you might have changed so much that you end up in a missile of Theseus situation, and you would have been better off just starting from scratch.
And while AMRAAM may have been dominant when it first entered service, the passage of time has brought competition. So if we're going to map out some of the competitors in the field, given recent events, we should probably start with Russia. The Soviet Air Forces and defence industrial base had always understood it would be difficult to keep up with the USAF and various NATO allies. But they were nonetheless able to produce some incredibly lethal aircraft. And especially as the Cold War was coming to an end, either fielding or developing missiles that would give their aircraft a reasonable answer to America's AIM-9 and AIM-120.
The R-73 and R-74, NATO designation AA-11 Archer, are basically the AIM-9 analogues of Soviet and post-Soviet air forces. Compared to the Sidewinder, the Archer is very much a late Cold War warrior, entering service in the 1980s. R-74M is basically a modernisation of the original 73. The missile got an upgraded seeker with additional range and additional off-boresight capability, presumably to give the Russian fighter designs even more of a shot in the dog fights they so clearly crave. A lot of the missiles in inventory are going to be missing some of the blingy features on American, European or Chinese missiles. Plus we've seen some feedback come out of Ukraine that the older versions of the R-73 the Ukrainians use sometimes have difficulty targeting small drones if conditions happen to be cloudy.
But of course, I'm sure we can all safely presume that any future peer-on-peer aerial warfare will include neither drones nor clouds so the existing R-73 stocks should be fine. More seriously, this is probably a dangerous missile and a successor is believed to be in the works. The Russian answer to the AMRAAM however is the R-77, NATO reporting name Adder. Indeed when this thing was first showed off in the 1990s, some journalists took to calling it the "Amraamsky". RUSI assesses the R-77-1 version, which entered service in 2010, as having inferior long-range performance to the AIM-120C series, but overall I'd note, this is still a relatively capable peer for the AMRAAM. And as RUSI notes, Russia is believed to be working on a new modernised version with a dual pulse rocket motor, adaptation for internal carriage by the Sukhoi 57, and performance "claimed to be comparable to the AIM-120C7."
That would give Russia a fox 3 which is probably uncomfortably close in performance to the vast majority of air-to-air missiles in the American inventory. Sure, the latest D version might still have more reach, but those are hardly going to replace every existing missile overnight. Russia also has their very long-range air-to-air missile which we've talked about before.
This is the R-37M, NATO reporting name AA-113 Axehead. And it offers extreme range, most likely beyond that of Meteor or the latest versions of the AIM-120, hypersonic speeds for part of its flight profile, and a massive 60 kg warhead. Of course we've established that if you want to make a missile great in some respects, you are probably going to have to sacrifice others. And for the R-37 those sacrifices are form factor, cost and agility. The Russians basically made R-37 go further by making it bigger.
And there's no way you are going to fit more than half a ton of missile inside the internal bay of a stealth aircraft. It's also assessed to be more expensive than the R-77, and while it's probably well adapted for taking down enablers, things like tankers and AWACS, in Ukraine the probability of kill when fired against fighter-sized targets that are capable of manoeuvring doesn't appear to have been that great. But the way the Axehead is used also highlights the importance of context when you are looking at a missile data sheet. On its own the R-37 reads as having great range and payload. But with that sort of form factor, this wouldn't exactly be a practical weapon for the likes of F-16 or MiG-29. But the Russian inventory features MiG-31, and MiG-31 is an absolute chonker of a high-speed high altitude interceptor.
And the aircraft carries the Zaslon-P radar, which is specifically optimised for identifying small targets that might be hugging the ground. Originally that was probably meant to be cruise missiles, but it doesn't have to be. And so you've got all the pieces coming together for a brute force solution to the energy problem. You have an aircraft with enough go to lift a useful payload of R-37s up to a very high altitude, accelerate them to a high speed before they launch, and then lob them at targets that are likely to be in a much lower energy state, flying low and slow.
The combination creates a system with even more range than you might expect, and while the missile may not be particularly agile, if you don't know it's coming, that might be all she bloody wrote. In summation, R-77-1 is broadly a peer to some older versions of the AMRAAM. Like AMRAAM it uses rocket propulsion, active radar guidance, and the form factor is broadly similar. The missile likely isn't enough to provide advantage over American aircraft, especially those with stealthy features and more modern sensors.
And against the AMRAAM D model is likely to suffer a significant range disadvantage. Newer versions might redress that balance, but time will tell. R-37 and R-37M extend the range bracket, but at the expense of both form factor and the ability to hit an aware and manoeuvring target. As mentioned, Russia also has a number of missile design or improvement programs. But if you're talking about their prospect of fielding large numbers of a system that will out-range something like the AMRAAM D, I think there are likely to be barriers that have nothing to do with the capability of Russia's designers or manufacturers.
The VKS is arguably in a position where there is a lot it needs to do in order to be a peer competitor without it being at all clear how the country will resource it all. Most of the air-to-air missile stock is probably old and nearing the end of its lifetime, it needs to be refreshed. A lot of airframes are going to need life extension or replacement. To be competitive, the fighters all probably need AESA radars and better data links as a bare minimum. And whatever your opinion on the Sukhoi 57 as a platform and all the new missiles that are supposedly being designed to go along with it, an aircraft is probably only going to have a significant impact if you take the F-35 or J-20 approach and actually build the thing. In terms of missiles, Russia has probably achieved rough parity with the American AIM-9 Sidewinder and most versions of the AMRAAM, while also having a very long range option available.
But while Russian industry may have been able to design to parity, with all the pressures that little thing called the war in Ukraine place on the Russian military budget I would be deeply sceptical of Russia's ability to design and field something truly superior in any significant numbers over the short and medium term. And so while Russian missile development has been relatively slow and disrupted by the 1990s, it's arguably the People's Republic of China that have raced ahead. In its very earliest stages, the missile armament of PLAAF aircraft looked very much like the Soviet armament. PL-1 for example was basically the Soviet AA-1, a pretty early, pretty basic, beam-riding missile. The PL-1 would then face off against the AIM-9B in a couple of air combats in the late 1950s, which probably just confirmed everyone's suspicions that the PL-1 was a bit trash and something better was needed. But through most of the Cold War, the PLAAF had a missile armament that was basically equivalent to what vinyl is today: dramatically less effective than just about every other competing technology, but endowed with a certain retro nostalgic appeal.
In the 90s however the PLAAF got the PL-8, which it has to be said looks suspiciously like an Israeli Python 3, but which, especially alongside some of the updates that would come in the early 21st century, gave the Chinese a dog-fighting IR-seeking missile with a range of about 12 miles and an all-aspect seeker. But which gave the PLAAF a much more serviceable missile in this category. The need for a longer range weapon gave us PL-11, which this time didn't look like an Israeli Python 3, but rather an Italian system with a link back to the American AIM-7. In short, go back even just two decades and the Chinese arsenal was very C tier. Inferior not just to many Western offerings, but contemporary Russian ones as well. But come the mid-2000s we see a new generation of Chinese air-to-air missiles.
And at this point we probably have to start talking rough parity with many of their competitors. The PL-10 is the new dog-fighting missile and it's reportedly no slouch. In terms of propulsion it uses a solid rocket booster, and in terms of overall kinematic performance RUSI describes it as being, "Comparable to the European ASRAAM and IRIS-T missiles, with superior kinematic performance to the American AIM-9X Sidewinder. They note that it is helmet sight compatible, can perform all-aspect shots at very high G loadings, has a lock on launch capability, and a modern imaging infrared seeker that is highly resistant to decoys. And so presumably goes on the list of systems that are banned from the Top Gun 3 set. Now on the basis of all those features some might argue this missile is superior to the American AIM-9X.
But what those people obviously forget is the importance of combat-proven technology. AIM-9X has been used to shoot down a number of balloons, PL-10 hasn't, so checkmate PL-10. The 10's bigger brother, the PL-12, was China's first truly indigenous active-radar missile. It entered service in 2005, is laid out very much like an AMRAAM, and according to RUSI, its development was reportedly at least partly based on imported Russian R-77 seeker heads. But whatever its providence or inspiration, PL-12 appears to have given Beijing an air-to-air weapon with a range somewhere between AIM-120B and C5.
There are also believed to have been some upgraded and modernised versions of the PL-12, but we're going to mostly skip over those, because PL-12 is very much the ignored middle child of the Chinese long-range air-to-air missile family. The 11 gets to claim that it was and always will be first, and everyone nowadays just wants to talk about the more popular younger child, which we'll get to in a moment. But before we do I'll just give you a quick side note, finding good quality close-up images of Chinese air-to-air missiles that aren't mock-ups at arms shows is actually relatively difficult. And going Googling for them, I did discover a couple of things about these missiles I didn't know going in. Like for example there appears to be this website offering to sell me a PL-8 missile for 45 Australian dollars in women's size small.
Suffice to say this is not how most international arms supply agreements are done. But legal and personal privacy issues aside, if I had a spare 45 bucks and literally no other purpose on the planet that I could put it towards, I would be kind of interested to see what would turn up if I ordered a PLA air-to-air missile in a men's US 5 shoe size. Now with that aside done let's get to the main event, the pacing challenge and favourite of air show paparazzi everywhere, the Chinese PL-15. If PL-12 was China's attempt to equal the AMRAAM, PL-15 is the attempt to go well beyond it.
RUSI assesses that the dual pulse rocket motor on the PL-15 puts it in the 200 kilometre maximum range class. That is 40 kilometres beyond the stated maximum range of the latest versions of the AMRAAM, and very roughly twice what the oldest versions could manage. That means if a US pilot with an AIM-120D is making a maximum range shot, all else being equal a PL-15 being fired back might have significantly more spare energy to play with. The missile is also believed to have a miniature AESA seeker and improved in-flight data links that make this thing harder to see, harder to jam, and more able to reach out and touch targets at long range than any previous Chinese design. It also notably fits in the internal weapons bay of the Chinese J-20 5th generation fighter.
Meaning that not only is this a missile with reach, it can be carried and deployed by an aircraft with a combination of sensors and some low observability features that make it more likely that it gets launched from a position where it's really, really going to hurt. Now you might be asking the question, "How do they get that much more performance out of the system compared to the AIM-120D?" And besides the obvious advantage of starting with a clean slate design rather than iterating something which is decades old at this point, part of the sacrifice (because there's always a sacrifice) was the missile's form factor. The missile is roughly 4 metres long, considerably longer than the AMRAAM, which might normally pose a problem for countries trying to store this thing in the internal weapons bay of a stealthy aircraft. But of course Beijing found a way around that problem by just, you know, making the J-20 itself considerably larger than aircraft like the F-35. More plane equals more internal volume, equals the ability to keep a four-pack of 4 metre metal tubes in your bay just fine. Now of course we are mostly going off a mixture of guesswork and official information when it comes to the PL-15's actual performance.
The PLAAF hasn't exactly been out there using these things in combat, and no one has published a manual yet. Now my personal solution to that problem would be to add the missile to War Thunder, make it terrible, and then wait for someone in China to inevitably post the full technical details to prove that it's actually pretty good. But assuming the 2020s best source of classified military information on sensitive technology doesn't come through for us, I will note that it's been claimed that China will be selling a downgraded version of the PL-15 to Pakistan with a maximum range of 145 kilometres. Notably that is still a missile with some serious legs on it. But so far we can't be sure exactly how much better the original Chinese version performs.
But we can be fairly confident that China is working on a system with an even longer range. This missile, tentatively designated PL-17, clearly looks to be abandoning the form factor requirement of fitting into a J-20 weapons bay in exchange for a much longer reach. The missile appears to be approximately 6 metres long, so very much external carriage only. And the very low profile and single set of quite small manoeuvring fins at the back there basically suggests that whatever team was given the task of designing this thing, was given a design brief which consisted entirely of the word "range" written in 72 point font and then underlined 16 times.
In that task they may have succeeded, with RUSI noting, "It appears to have a multi-mode seeker with an active radar and IR homing capabilities, and a range in the 400 kilometre class with a very high altitude cruise phase." They would go on to note that, as such, this weapon poses a formidable threat to tankers and other enablers. Basically PL-17 appears to take what Phoenix and R-37 are trying to do, packs it into a sleeker form and dials the range up even further. Against agile targets PL-17 probably isn't the weapon of choice.
And given the size of course, you'll only be seeing this on 4th generation missile trucks, not snuck close to the opponent in a J-20's weapons bay. But if you are a slow, obvious target like an AWACS, a tanker or a Kirov airship, this thing might be your next generation worst nightmare. And to put that range into perspective, if the Ukrainian Air Force was operating something with those performance characteristics right now they could be engaging targets flying over Sevastopol in Crimea without getting within 100 kilometres of the front line. So I'd argue what you're seeing here is a continued rapid evolution in the capabilities of the Chinese Air Force. And in just about every technical respect they are probably now ahead of where Russia is. And in terms of front-line missile systems, PL-15 offers a lot more than R-77M.
And if it performs anything like advertised, PL-17 has considerable advantages over R-37M. PL-15 uses a more advanced type of rocket motor than AMRAAM, likely has significantly greater range and performance than AMRAAM, while having most of the blingy seeker and networking features expected of modern air-to-air missiles. Its form factor is slightly larger, but still 5th generation friendly. PL-17 by contrast doesn't have a direct American equivalent. And while it has that much larger form factor, in terms of range if the RUSI reporting is accurate, it significantly more than doubles the maximum reach of the latest version of the AMRAAM. And all this combines to give PLAAF aircraft, all else being equal, a potential disadvantage in situational awareness versus their often more stealthy US opponents, but a potentially significant advantage in how far their weapons can shoot.
And here's the thing: when it comes to missiles that have jumped ahead of AMRAAM in the BVR game, I'd argue it's actually not just the Chinese who have done so. Because across the Atlantic from the American east coast, the European missile giants have been busy. And in recent years they may have come up with a world beater.
Now in the interest of time I can't cover every air-to-air missile used by NATO aircraft in Europe, and that's pretty much because, despite NATO encouraging standardisation on paper, many, many air-to-air missile joint development programs have just ended up with the various partners breaking up and deciding to build their own. And so the Brits use the ASRAAM, the French the Mica series, and the Germans have IRIS-T as their dog-fighting missile. Which presumably, because in Germany you can't get budget approval for anything that might be deemed an offensive weapon, is advertised as having a secondary self-defend function, where the pilot can task the missile against an incoming missile. Performing the aerospace equivalent of defending yourself by shooting down a bullet with another bullet. Now there can be benefits to going your own way on missile procurement, for example by protecting a local manufacturer, like the manufacturer of the ASRAAM, MBDA UK.
Or the manufacturer of the French Mica, MBDA France. And in the case of the next missile I want to talk about, once again MBDA. So let's have a chat about Europe's fox 3 of choice, and possibly the best in the field, the Meteor. While many of the missiles we've talked about today are millennials or older, Meteor (like PL-15) is gen alpha through and through. A clean sheet design that came into service in 2016, there's a lot Meteor can offer.
In terms of form factor the thing is basically an AMRAAM, 3.6 metres long, 190 kilos, and depending on the version, even the costs are pretty similar. But when you start talking about capability the comparison diverges quickly. The biggest difference with the Meteor is the method of propulsion.
Instead of a more conventional rocket engine, Meteor is equipped with a ramjet. And that has massive implications for both the missile's range and also its performance in a range of scenarios. In range terms this has been described as a 200 kilometre class missile. That puts it in the same category as things like the larger PL-15, and longer range than AMRAAM D or R-77.
But the advantages of that ramjet motor goes beyond just the raw range figures. A conventional rocket-powered missile like an AMRAAM C will dump most of its energy soon after launch and then mostly coast to its target. Meteor by contrast is burning throughout its entire flight. For example it means that if the missile is fired at a relatively low level, it's going to be more capable to first climb to the target altitude, and then still be burning when it gets up into that thinner atmosphere and doing so is more efficient. This is one reason why I brought Meteor up in the context of Ukraine in the past. If you have an environment where pilots are having to fly at very low level in order to avoid air defences, as they are in Ukraine, Meteor is going to give those pilots a much better chance of engaging opposing targets at high altitude than a missile like the AIM-120D.
That ramjet also means that the missile is better able to adapt to any manoeuvres the target might make, and as a result the so-called no escape zone is much larger. Remember against a sufficiently agile and jamming resistant missile, evasion is pretty much an energy game. And compared to a lot of its rivals the Meteor just has a lot more energy to give. It can outrun you, out turn you, and has the e