A couple things here I want to approach. First off, as predicted here months ago (with the help of my readers) the J-20’s is going through weapons bay trials, which will inevitably lead up to some type of test launch. Of particular note is the J-20’s unique short ranged air to air missile deployment device from its side weapons bays. The F-22, a very loose analogue for the J-20 (emphasize very) uses a canted trapeze that pushes the AIM-9’s seeker out into the air-stream for proper establishment of a lock before launch once the bay doors are swung open. Only once the missile has acquired a target and the pilot “receives tone” (the AIM-9 series has an audible growl as hit hunts for a heat source, once it finds one it goes from an intermittent growling sound to a solid tone, cueing the pilot to fire) the missile can be fired and only then do the launch bay doors close up. This method increases the F-22’s stealth signature dramatically while also disturbing the airflow around the jet which makes for lower performance and a rougher ride during close in air combat maneuvering, or dogfighting. Soon, the F-22 will have the AIM-9X Block II which features lock on after launch data-link capability. In other words, the pilot can “acquire” a target via his or her’s on-board sensors, including the hopefully forthcoming Scorpion helmet mounted sight (this is a great helmet and will allow the pilot to use their high off bore-sight cueing and situational awareness related projections even with night vision goggles, take that JHMCS). Once the target is “virtually locked” within the AIM-9X Block II’s engagement envelope the pilot can quickly fire the Sidewinder, with the doors opening and only closing momentarily, and allow the data-link to transfer the acquiring secondary sensor’s info to the missile after it has left the bay in the form of a vector. The missile will fly in this prescribed direction so that it can acquire the target itself, at which point the AIM-9X Block II to becomes truly “fire and forget.” Once the AIM-9X Block II is integrated into the Raptor, and especially once the helmet mounted display is operational, the F-22’s side bay doors only have to briefly open to let the AIM-9X on its one-way mission. All this begs the question: If China loves copying the US when it comes to weapons systems, why not just build something similar for the J-20 when it comes to deploying its short range air to air missiles?
The answer is quite simple, lock on after launch capability is not an easy one to achieve. It is technologically complex, requires deep systems integration (software architecture permitting), and robust testing using live missiles, and thus it is expensive. China, being the resourceful and cunning folks that they are, figured out a way to employ any new or relatively archaic high-off-bore-sight short ranged air to air missile while keeping the jet’s aerodynamics relatively intact (doors closed during prolonged maneuvering while the missile hangs out on its rail) while also minimizing the impact a “deployed missile” has the J-20’s low radar cross section. That is right folks, China just said “we don’t want to have to rely on LOAL capability, so why not just temporarily (as in for seconds or minutes) mount a similarly agile, but much less complex and expensive, short ranged air to air missile outside of the bay during times when close range combat is imminent?” This is exactly what they did, and honestly, I think it is genius. Radar signature becomes a small factor when fighting for one’s life at close range, having a reliable missile ready to make U-turn off the rail and subsequently turn your enemy into chaff is so important that is can be seen as a life and death requirement. The alternative, such as the reality the F-22 has faced for the better part of a decade, is that you open the bay up for prolonged periods of time and pay a large penalty in radar cross section and performance. Also by building a relatively simple contraption, kind of similar to one of those bars that goes on your lap on a roller coaster, albeit with a missile attached, Chinese engineers simplified the launch system and also probably made it much lighter than an F-22 type design. Once again, genius.
Another point to be taken from the J-20’s short ranged air to air missile launch mechanism revelations are that designers absolutely thought it was necessary to give this jet high-off-bore-sight close range missile capability from day one, and in a reliable and persistent nature when needed. This could be due to lack of maneuverability and/or because of its mission, which I have said for years is to break through the enemy’s (American, Taiwanese) fighter cover and take out their enablers (see tankers, AEW&C, C2 and connectivity nodes). In such a case, being electronically silent is your best bet at surviving, so using infra-red passively guided missiles, which require no electronic emissions, at medium-close ranges may be your only play, at least for anything that does not put out a continuous or semi-continuous form of radiation (see AWACS or JSTARS) in which case a passively guided anti-radiation missile may be the J-20’s weapon of choice, or a medium-long range AAM that can get within locking distance, featuring active radar or IR/EO for terminal homing, via a traditional data-link feeding the J-20’s targeting picture to it provided by passive sensors (IRST, ESM etc).
This is my analysis, I have not had time to look through other people’s opinion on the topic although as always I am damn certain if I am writing it here. Once again, I hope, beg even, that the DoD quits underestimating the Chinese when it comes to their evolving aerospace capabilities and ability to focus their development efforts, and funds, to gaping holes in our order of battle and combat capabilities, all of which that we have acquired by choice and not happenstance.
In other news, China got its wish, Russia is selling them the SU-35 Terminator, and with it they will probably get their next generation engine and avionics technology. I could care less what Russia says about protecting theft of their intellectual aerospace property, there are multiple variants of the SU-27 now flying as indigenously developed and unlicensed Chinese weapon systems. Are we really to believe that Russia is just looking past this without compensation to sell a couple dozen fighters? Laughable…
*Thanks to Nico for sending me over some great pics and kicking me in the behind to write about this!