Will America’s Next Long-Range, Air-to-Air Missile Match up to China’s?

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November 5, 2019 | Originally published by Date Line: November 5 on

The U.S. military, and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in particular, invests in and places considerable store by superior technology to prevail against peer rivals. The service is also disinclined to allow its near-allies to field capabilities it does not also have access to. In the Air Force’s slipstream, U.S. industry is often first to market with advanced systems. This makes the USAF’s apparent approach to its next generation of beyond-visual-range, air-to-air missiles all the more intriguing.

In 2022, Air Force officials plan to introduce a replacement for Raytheon’s AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range, Air-to-Air Missile, which for nearly three decades represented the West’s benchmark for active-radar-guided missile performance. The replacement — Lockheed Martin’s AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile — has quietly been the service’s top development priority in the air-to-air sphere.

But while the AIM-260 undoubtedly offers marked improvements over its predecessor, including in overall range, there are questions about whether the new missile actually offers a longer useful range than the AIM-120 — or compared to other countries’ late-generation weapons. Two years ago, Raytheon’s product was replaced as the West’s premier radar-guided, air-to-air missile by the extended-range version of MBDA’s Meteor. The European missile has greater range and, more importantly, remains powered during the final stage of a medium- to long-range engagement.