China has made very impressive progress in its air-to-air missile development, but these weapons remain relatively obscure in the West.
The rapid pace of development across China’s military aircraft scene has been well documented, with Western observers keenly awaiting new designs and variants of existing ones, while manufacturing plants keep up a seemingly relentless pace of deliveries. What’s been less well covered, however, is the domestic production of air-launched weapons to arm these aircraft. For many years, Chinese progress in air-to-air missiles, or AAMs, in particular, was overlooked or achievements downplayed.
In many cases, Chinese AAMs were discredited as mere knockoffs of existing Western designs. More recently, however, there has been a broader acceptance that Chinese AAMs are not only keeping pace with their rivals but, in some cases, offering performance that exceeds them. With the United States, in particular, working to close the gap with China’s long-range AAMs, now is a good time to review the air-to-air weapons that arm the combat aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The following review looks at the background of Chinese AAM development followed by the most important domestically produced air-to-air missiles in PLA service today. At the same time, it’s worth bearing in mind that China also received considerable stocks of Russian-made AAMs, too, primarily to arm its Sukhoi Flanker-series fighters. These weapons include the R-27 (AA-10 Alamo), R-73 (AA-11 Archer), and R-77 (AA-12 Adder), although these are increasingly giving way to Chinese weapons, with Flankers from both Russian and Chinese production being optimized to use them.