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Air-to-Air Missiles: Capabilities and Developments In China

“Good enough”, this is how I often describe China’s short-term ambitions. They don’t need to have a world-class / global-leader military, not yet; what they need is something that is ‘good enough’. This has implications for how China pursues its program of military modernization and its goal to increase its comprehensive national power. They don’t need to have a navy that can go toe to toe with the U.S. Navy, they need a military which is ‘good enough’ to keep the U.S. Navy occupied or distracted, hence developing the idea to use ballistic missiles against aircraft carriers, this is a ‘good enough’ solution for now, at a much lower cost. So too in the realm of aviation. China is working very hard to modernize their fleet of aircraft and striving to improve their aerospace forces, but it takes time and money. So where do they focus? On getting to ‘good enough’. Air-to-air missiles are a perfect example of this. Their newest fighter, the J-20, is stealthy-ish, may soon be able to supercruise-ish (if they solve their engine problems), and is a modern fighter. Is it as good as an F-35, no, but if you can develop air-to-air missiles that can outreach American and allied missiles, then a decent J-20 is good enough to keep the U.S. aviation forces, particularly the tanker bridge on which we heavily rely, at arm’s length. Thus ‘good enough’ (for now). Make no mistake, China has goals to create a ‘world class military’ by 2049 (the centenary of the founding of the PRC), and they have the plans to get there. But in the interim, finding creative ways to fight asymmetrically will be ‘good enough’ to achieve their aims.

Drawing on Chinese-language sources, this report is the next in the series of studies by the China Aerospace Studies Institute that seeks to lay the foundation for better understanding the Aerospace Sector of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This report describes China’s air-to-air missile capabilities and development. It reviews the history of the PRC’s acquisition of air-to-air missiles and production capabilities, describes the missiles and associated airborne sensors that China has produced or is currently developing, and provides an overview of China’s air-to-air missile research and development (R&D) ecosystem, including profiles of key organizations and individuals. It concludes with an assessment of the outlook for China’s air-to-air missile capabilities and their implications for the United States.

We hope you find this volume useful, and look forward to bringing you further details on the foundations of Chinese aerospace in this series.