China unveils its J-20 stealth fighter on an air show in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, China, November 1, 2016. China Daily/via REUTERS
China is reportedly building new engines for the development of hypersonic missiles with up to three times the range of existing Chinese weapons systems, potentially threatening American air and naval assets operating in the Asia Pacific, a critical region where China is rapidly expanding its military presence.
As China’s air and naval strength is still inferior to that of the U.S., the Chinese military relies heavily on an anti-access, area-denial defense strategy. China is researching and developing ramjet engines to give this strategy a boost, the Science and Technology Daily reported in June. The incorporation of a ramjet engine into Chinese air-to-air missiles could make China’s next-generation stealth fighters an even more formidable barrier to U.S. intervention in a potential confrontation. The same technology could also improve the combat capabilities of China’s anti-ship cruise missiles.
Traditional rocket-propelled missiles carry the fuel and oxidizer inside the missiles, Daniel Katz, the director for defense analysis and data at Aviation Week, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. With ramjets, as well as the similar ducted rockets, the oxygen is supplied by the air intake, so the missile can carry more fuel, giving it a longer burn and greater range.
A top research team affiliated with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation recently conducted two test flights of a new ramjet engine, which theoretically has the ability to offer high power, high speed and high maneuverability.
The Chinese ramjet engine, according to multiple Chinese media reports, could give the six beyond visual range air-to-air missiles onboard the Chinese J-20 ranges of roughly 200 miles, almost twice that of American beyond visual range air-to-air missiles, and greatly increase the “no escape” zone for targeted aircraft. At top speed, a ramjet-equipped air-to-air missile could possibly move at incredible speeds around Mach 5. For comparison, the American AIM-120D is believed to have a top speed of about Mach 4.
Chinese stealth fighter jets, such as the J-20 and J-31, are considered knockoffs of their American counterparts, with some analysts claiming that the Chinese aircraft are based on stolen technology. The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter’s operations in battle are enhanced by critical support aircraft, such as aerial refueling aircraft and airborne early warning and control aircraft, which are slow and vulnerable.
Existing Chinese beyond visual range missiles enhanced with new ramjet engines could potentially threaten these support units in a manner similar to the PL-XX, a suspected rocket-powered air-to-air missile or prototype of a potential future missile, that first appeared in leaked photos of a Shenyang J-16 last year.
J-16 with new huge AAM (?) spotted … anyone with an idea ?? pic.twitter.com/55WY9t9gKf
— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) November 20, 2016
Chinese writings on military strategy indicate that analysts believe China should use advanced supersonic combusting ramjet (scramjet) engine technology to develop long-range air-to-air missiles to target force multipliers and rear echelon support units.
— Stephen Trimble (@FG_STrim) November 21, 2016
“It is another threat,” Katz explained to TheDCNF, “that forces the U.S. heavy-body aircraft to stand off at longer distances, which makes it harder for the fifth-generation aircraft to receive their support, and that includes tanking, signals intelligence, and airborne early warning.”
“It denies those fifth-generation fighters that electronic support in battle and effectively shortens the range they can penetrate into Chinese areas of operation,” he added.
Ramjet-enhanced air-to-air missiles might theoretically pose a threat to stealth fighters as well, although there are technical challenges. The Chinese could aspire to engage stealth aircraft by incorporating guidance from ground-based low-frequency radars, but existing models lack the accuracy to engage aircraft and China’s onboard missile seekers would likely have difficulty acquiring U.S. stealth fighters.
With conventional aircraft, an air-to-air missile with active radar guidance picks up the target several miles out and then guides itself in, Katz explained. “For a stealth aircraft, part of the problem is that missile seekers are very small compared to surface or fighter-carried radars, so it’s not going to see the aircraft until it gets much closer, at which point the stealth aircraft might already be outside the search cone and it misses entirely.”
Developing this sort of technology is an obstacle, but it is something towards which Chinese weapons developers can work.
Anti-ship cruise missiles equipped with ramjet engines would pose an additional challenge for American naval assets. These missiles would be much faster, limiting reaction time, complicating radar tracking, and making interception more difficult.
Beijing-based military expert Li Jie told the Global Times the new ramjet engines represent “a milestone in the field of engine research,” helping China overcome a weapons development bottleneck.
To realize its aspirations, China will need to first miniaturize the engine, which is still too large for the small air-to-air missiles. That process will require a lot of additional research, as it involves a lot of very small machinery and the creation of a small jet engine in a very limited space.
Furthermore, for Chinese missiles, the air-to-air missiles in particular, to achieve top speeds, extended ranges, and the most effective strike capabilities, China will probably need to advance the onboard electronics, specifically the guidance and terminal engagement systems. China will also need to further develop its fleet of airborne early warning and control aircraft, electronic warfare and intelligence assets, and ground radars. China has ambitious goals for its missiles and other weapons systems, and is moving forward at a rapid pace.