China’s state broadcaster CCTV recently aired footage, for the first time, of the production line for the PL-15 air-to-air missile, giving the public a rare insight. Military analyst Fu Qianshao believes this display signifies a new chapter in China’s strategic deterrence against the U.S.
China’s foray into the international market has been marked by its export of the J-10CE and J-20III fighter jets to Pakistan, accompanied by the PL-15E, one of the most advanced air-to-air missiles globally. The publicly stated range of the PL-15E missile is 145 kilometers, thought to be a simplified version. However, a representative of the Chinese defense industry stated that the actual range of the PL-15 exceeds 200 kilometers.
The broadcasted footage showed a nearly human-free production environment with automated machinery, notably robot arms printing on electronic boards. The PL-15 adopts a flexible manufacturing technology, a cutting-edge production technique centered on numerical control technology, allowing for automation in processing, manufacturing, assembly, and inspection for various products.
The manufacturing process minimizes human intervention, enhancing product quality consistency and reducing both cost and time. This public disclosure attests to the PL-15’s status as a top-tier air-to-air missile, and a higher quality standard signifies its high reliability.
Fu Qianshao suggests that revealing the PL-15 production line indicates China’s intent to expand sales and confidently display its air-to-air missile capabilities on the global stage.
Air-to-air missiles, Fu explains, are pivotal in determining air combat outcomes, working in tandem with onboard radars to complete the kill chain. With its datalink and a range exceeding 200 kilometers, the PL-15E can be guided by distant radars, such as those on early warning aircraft, potentially changing air combat dynamics. Thus, countries that acquire the PL-15 can significantly influence aerial superiority.
Furthermore, this also signifies China’s confidence in maintaining its lead over the U.S. in air-to-air missile technology. In the past, U.S. intelligence mistakenly believed their AIM-120D utilized a dual-pulse engine. However, China was the first to actualize this. By the time the U.S. realized the PL-15’s capabilities and began developing the AIM260 (allegedly with a 200-km range), it hadn’t yet completed national testing.
Subsequently, footage emerged of China’s J-16 carrying an ultra-long-range air-to-air missile. According to U.S. sources, China has extended its missile range to 400-500 kilometers, targeting high-value U.S. assets like early warning, refueling, and bomber aircraft.
Fu notes this evolution in missile range is altering the rules of aerial warfare. By unveiling the PL-15 production line, China indicates it has even more advanced missiles in store and isn’t concerned about the U.S. catching up.
Beyond mere advertisement, China’s display of its advanced military-industrial complex serves as a deterrent. The arms race between China and the U.S. is likened to a muscle-flexing competition: weapons represent muscles, while the production line symbolizes the ability to develop these muscles.
In conclusion, Fu Qianshao opines that as China’s military prowess grows, it will become increasingly transparent, showcasing its capabilities to the U.S. and the world, cooling any U.S. military bravado.