Beijing, Jan 26:

China may test a 400-km range air-to-air missile which could take out early warning and aerial refuelling aircraft. If successfully tested, the weapon’s range will be longer than those of the US and Russia.

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The picture of the J-11B twin-engine fighter jet carrying a large missile surfaced at the People’s Liberation Army website, state-run China Daily newspaper reported on Thursday.

A spokesman for the Chinese Air Force on Wednesday said no official introduction of the potential new weapon has been disclosed by the air force or defence contractors.

The US’ longest-range air-to-air missile is the AIM-120D with a range of up to 200 km while Russia has the R-37 and K-100 air-to-air missiles, said to have operational ranges of up to 400 km.

The missile’s appearance has attracted attention from military enthusiasts, many of whom said such a missile would boost the air force’s combat capabilities.

According to the picture, the twin-engine jet stretches about one-fourth of the length of the 22-metre-long aircraft — during Red Sword 2016, an aerial warfare exercise, over a northwestern desert in November.

It comes after photographs circulated on weapons websites late last year of a Chinese J-16 strike fighter carrying a nearly identical missile.

Chinese fighter jets currently use the PL-11 and PL-12 missiles to attack long-distance targets, but their maximum ranges are shorter than 100 km.

According to Fu Qianshao, an equipment researcher with the PLA Air Force, China has developed a new missile that can hit high-value targets such as early-warning planes and aerial refuelling aircraft, which stay far from conflict zones.

Most air-to-air missiles in service around the world have a maximum range of around 100 km, while a handful of new types propelled by ramjets can reach 200 km, Fu said.

However, all of them are unsuitable for combating early-warning planes because of their short ranges, he said.

According to Fu, long-range ground-to-air missiles are restricted by their fixed deployment when dealing with planes far away.

“The best solution to this problem is to send a super-maneuverable fighter jet with very-long-range missiles to destroy those high-value targets, which are ‘eyes’ of enemy jets,” Fu said.

“So the successful development of this potential new missile would be a major breakthrough in the air force’s weapons upgrade.”

The range of the missile is expected to be more than 400 km. It could be farther than any air-to-air missile used by western air forces, he said.

Fu added that based on his experience, an ultralong-range missile would enter the stratosphere — at an altitude of 20 to 50 km — and continue its flight there until it detects its target and dives to strike.

Its size would enable it to be equipped with a large, cutting-edge guidance radar to detect targets. All of these capabilities would allow it to deal with large planes and stealth jets, Fu added.

Wang Ya’nan, an expert from Aerospace Knowledge magazine, said the superlong range of such a missile would mean it could use satellites to relay data and control signals.

China has already tested anti-satellite missiles. (IANS)