China Unveils PL-17 Ultra-Long-Range Air-to-Air Missile with Potential 400km Strike Capability


China’s official military media, “China Military Online,” recently released a series of images featuring J-16 fighter jets carrying multiple missiles in flight, capturing the attention of military enthusiasts. Sharp-eyed enthusiasts noticed that the undersides of the wings of the J-16s were adorned with “blue” missiles, with one missile standing out in terms of appearance and length from the others. It is rumored to be China’s latest “Thunder-17” (PL-17, also tentatively referred to as PL-XX or PL-20) long-range air-to-air missile. Reports suggest that this is an ultra-long-range air-to-air missile with a range of up to 400 kilometers, offering a significant advantage in beyond-visual-range combat in modern air warfare environments.

The “PL-17” is one of the possible products of the PLA’s PL-XX ultra-long-range AAM (Air-to-Air Missile) program, aiming to design a missile surpassing the U.S. AIM-120 for striking distant high-value targets such as electronic warfare aircraft, aerial refueling aircraft, and long-range early warning aircraft. From the photos, the ultra-long-range PL-17 can be seen mounted on the innermost wing pylons of the J-16 fighter, with a significantly different appearance and length compared to the nearby “PL-15” and “PL-10.”

According to the photos, the two J-16 fighters adopted a “4+4+1+1” loading configuration, including four PL-15 medium-range air-to-air missiles, four PL-10 short-range dogfight missiles, one PL-12 medium-range air-to-air missile, and one unknown new type of air-to-air missile. This indicates the addition of a new type of air-to-air missile under the fuselage of the J-16 fighter.

China Military Online suddenly publicly unveils the PL-17 ultra-long-range air-to-air missile. (China Military Online)

Compared to the PL-15 medium-range air-to-air missile, the new missile is half a body length longer, with the PL-15 having a body length of about 4 meters and the new air-to-air missile estimated to be around 6 meters. This suggests that the PLA Air Force has introduced a new ultra-long-range air-to-air missile. If this speculation is true, it indicates the first public appearance of the Thunder ultra-long-range air-to-air missile. Previously, there were reports of China unveiling ultra-long-range air-to-air missiles with a maximum range exceeding 400 kilometers and a flight speed of up to Mach 6.

Analysts point out that with the J-16 fighter carrying the PL-17 ultra-long-range air-to-air missile, the Chinese Air Force is announcing to the world the deployment of ultra-long-range air-to-air missiles and their involvement in real combat training.

According to reports from the military news website “The WARZONE,” the PL-17’s propulsion system may use a dual-pulse rocket engine, a technology that the PLA is likely more adept at handling. The missile features four small tail fins and vector control devices for maneuverability. Due to its length of 6 meters, the PL-17 may not fit into the internal bays of the J-20 and can only be externally mounted on weapon pylons.

The missile with a noticeably longer length under the wings of the J-16 is believed to be the speculated PL-17, according to various sources. (Online image)

In terms of radar guidance, the PL-17 is believed to have an AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar in its guidance head, providing strong resistance to electronic countermeasures through bidirectional data link communication. Due to the extended guidance range, the missile relies on cooperative platforms, such as allied early warning aircraft, closer aircraft, or ground radar, even satellites, to provide target data in the initial launch phase. The active radar in the missile body is then activated for target acquisition in the mid-to-late stage.

It’s worth noting that all the missiles mounted under the aircraft are “blue” training rounds, not fully functional live ammunition. Such training rounds typically do not contain warhead explosives or rear engines and may only have a radar seeker and recorder, serving for pilot tracking training or simply having a weight equivalent to live rounds. However, the fact that the missile’s physical configuration matches the training rounds on the aircraft suggests that the development and testing of this missile may have reached a certain level, although it cannot be confirmed whether it is officially in service at present.

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