China reveals manufacturing process of its PL-15 air-to-air missile


According to an article by China Arms on August 13, 2023, China has publicly disclosed the manufacturing process of its advanced PL-15 air-to-air missile. The broadcast, which was aired on China's state broadcaster CCTV, carries potential strategic implications, particularly in the context of China's complex relationship with the United States.

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China reveals manufacturing process of its strategic PL 15 air to air missile 925  China reveals manufacturing process of its PL-15 air-to-air missile (Picture source: China Arms)


The broadcast showcased an automated production setting, where robotic arms performed precise assembly tasks. The PL-15 missile's production incorporates flexible manufacturing technology enabled by numerical control technology, a method that reduces human involvement and aims for consistent quality while minimizing costs. This public unveiling of the production process emphasizes the missile's reputation for technical sophistication, reliability, and precision.

Military analyst Fu Qianshao interprets this display as indicative of China's increasing willingness to present transparent portrayals of its military capabilities, projecting strength and innovation globally. By revealing the inner workings of its missile production, China could be aiming to establish its position in international arms sales while asserting its air-to-air missile capabilities.

Additionally, air-to-air missiles' strategic importance, as highlighted by Fu, is significant. These weapons significantly influence aerial engagements by working alongside radar systems to execute precise attacks. The PL-15E missile boasts advanced capabilities and a maximum engagement range surpassing 140 kilometers. The missile has the potential to reshape aerial warfare dynamics, with a capacity to engage multiple targets simultaneously which can be significant in scenarios involving groups of enemy aircraft or multiple threats within a single engagement sequence.

The PL-15 missile, also referred to as the Pili-15, is a beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile developed by China's 607 Institute, also known as the China Air-to-Air Missile Research Institute. This institute is a significant research and development entity within China's defense industry. The missile is considered a modern addition to the Chinese military's air-to-air missile inventory, with design features emphasizing extended engagement ranges, advanced guidance systems, and improved anti-jamming technology.  

The development of the PL-15 missile was initiated in response to the Chinese Air Force's need for a new long-range air-to-air missile capable of countering a diverse range of aerial threats. This evolution reflects China's broader efforts to enhance its air combat capabilities and modernize its military assets within the global context, as also demonstrated by its new 610B anti-stealth aircraft radar.

An upgraded variant approved for export, the PL-15E, offers extended range and improved performance compared to the standard PL-15 missile. The PL-15 missile has been integrated into various Chinese fighter aircraft, including the J-20 stealth fighter and the J-11B, while the PL-15E variant is used by the Pakistan Air Force's JF-17 Block III and J-10CE aircraft.

A current development effort involves exploring a version of the PL-15E missile with folding wings. This design modification aims to potentially increase the fighter's payload capacity. By incorporating folding wings, spatial constraints could be alleviated, potentially allowing for carrying six rounds of ammunition instead of the original four, which could improve operational efficiency.

In terms of specifications, the PL-15 missile measures 3996mm in length with a diameter of 203mm. It weighs up to 210kg and achieves speeds of up to Mach 4. The publicly stated maximum engagement range for the PL-15E missile is 145 kilometers, although sources suggest that the missile's actual operational range could surpass 200 kilometers. This contributes to enhancing China's air combat capabilities, enabling the engagement of high-value aerial targets such as early warning aircraft, refueling tankers, and strategic bombers.

The missile's propulsion system utilizes a dual-pulse solid rocket motor, which optimizes initial acceleration and sustained thrust for improved range and maneuverability. This propulsion capability is essential for effective target engagement and mission success. The PL-15 missile is a fire-and-forget weapon system, which means that once launched, it can autonomously track and engage its designated target without continuous guidance from the launch aircraft.

The missile's precision and accuracy during flight are achieved through a combination of guidance systems. These include inertial guidance mechanisms along with the Beidou satellite navigation system for mid-course adjustments. A two-way data link facilitates ongoing communication between the missile and its launch aircraft, enabling real-time trajectory corrections and target updates.

The PL-15 missile's active radar seeker is equipped with an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar. This radar system significantly enhances the missile's ability to track, discriminate, and guide itself to its intended target, contributing to overall effectiveness, especially against agile and evasive targets.

The missile's potential to utilize A-firing B-guiding technology involves leveraging data from companion aircraft (wingmen) to optimize missile launches against both airborne and maritime targets. The feasibility of this concept has been acknowledged, suggesting openness to innovative operational approaches.

In terms of addressing electronic warfare challenges, the PL-15 missile incorporates anti-jamming technology and countermeasure resistance features. These design elements allow the missile to operate effectively in environments where electronic warfare threats and countermeasures are present. The missile's data link is designed to maintain communication integrity between the missile and its launch platform, enabling it to resist electronic interference.