Updated 2:12 PM EST, Wed, Jan 29, 2020

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China Brags its Untested VLRAAM can Defeat US Navy Airpower

World beater?

(Photo : PLAAF) VLRAAM on a J-16 during tests.

China is said to be developing what might well be the world's longest range air-to-air missile, but one with a complex kill chain susceptible to countermeasures on account of the missile's claimed range of 300 kilometers.

In addition, this "Very Long Range Air-to-Air Missile" or VLRAAM is being developed to shoot down strategically important but slow and unarmed U.S. aerial tankers and airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C), and not faster stealth fighters such as the Northrop Grumman F-35 Lightning II flown by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

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Chinese state-controlled media revealed VLRAAM is over six meters long compared to the 3.6 meter length for the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) currently in use by the United States military. VLRAAM has a diameter of 33 cm compared to AMRAAM's 18 cm.

News stories and photos showed one of these VLRAAMs mounted beneath each wing of a Shenyang J-16 fourth generation, multirole fighter bomber during tests. Chinese sources said the missile is incompatible with China's new stealth fighters, the Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-31.

This disadvantage means the easily detectible J-16 can be easily engaged at long range by U.S. fighters such as the F-35 or the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets flown-off U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. The two-seat J-16 has a round trip range of 3,900 km.

Powered by a rocket engine, VLRAAM has a claimed speed of Mach 6 (7,400 km/h). China said the advanced features of this big missile consist of an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar that locks onto a target; an infrared/electro-optical seeker and satellite navigation midcourse correction.

The Chinese make the claim the missile's AESA big radar makes it very effective against distant and stealthy targets, and resilient to electronic warfare countermeasures like jamming and spoofing.

On the other hand, the infrared/electro-optical seeker can identify and engage high-value targets like aerial tankers and AEW&C aircraft.

VLRAAM operates differently from conventional air-to-air-missiles. It flies 15 km upward of its launch fighter to an altitude of 30 km, and is guided to its target by a combination of long-range radars like those on Chinese AEWC planes, satellites and long-range aerial drones, before plunging at hypersonic speed onto its target.

This reliance on other aircraft or satellites to identify and lock onto over-the-horizon targets is VLRAAM's greatest weakness. China has no operational high-altitude, long endurance (HALE) aerial drones and its satellite navigation systems have been shown to be vulnerable to U.S. jamming.

Using the J-20 to provide targeting data for VLRAAMs, however, seems viable if the Chinese can overcome problems posed by this stealth jet's underpowered engines.

The Chinese claim VLRAAM will even the odds against the numerically and qualitatively superior aircraft of the U.S. Navy, while allowing its outclassed fourth generation fighters (the Shenyang J-11 air superiority fighter and the J-16) something of a fighting chance against the Americans.

VLRAAM will also give Shenyang J-15 carrier-borne fighters a long-range interception capability to defend warships of the People's Liberation Army Navy Surface Force.

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