As tensions rise with Taiwan and the U.S., Chinese state TV has revealed details of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) new airborne munitions dispenser. Coming directly on the heels of the massive U.S. sale of 66 new F-16Vs to Taipei, China is clearly trying to send a message – it can attack the new jet fighter – on the ground.
The images shown on China’s CCTV-7 on Friday, and reported by the South China Morning Post (SCMP), showed an ungainly boxy, orange-colored missile with what appear to be small retractable wings, and a torpedo-like tail. At first glance, the weapon does not appear especially impressive and seems to resemble older U.S. technology.
According to SCMP, the glide weapon is called the Tianlei 500 – or Sky Thunder. The 500kg (1,100 lb) precision-guided munitions dispenser and air-to-surface missile is made by China North Industries Group or Norinco. It supposedly has a reduced radar cross-section, making it somewhat stealthy, and the small wings reportedly give the missile a stand-off range of more than 60km (37 miles).
While claiming to be laser-guided, no laser seeker can be seen on the weapon shown in the photos.
A senior engineer for Norinco told CCTV-7 that the Tianlei 500 “can carry up to 240 [grenade sized] submunitions. And when dispersed, they can spread to over 6,000 square metres,” reported SCMP. The weapon is expected to improve the PLAAF’s ability to attack a range of land and sea targets.
According to Norinco, reports SCMP, the Tianlei 500 is designed to target “airport runways, aircraft on the tarmac, power facilities and armed personnel in large numbers.” The key is its ability to damage or destroy airfields and aircraft on the ground. As Kyle Mizokami notes in Popular Mechanics:
Military airfields cover a wide area, and in wartime, it can take dozens of bombs to force an enemy airbase to temporarily cease air operations. A single Tianlei 500, on the other hand, can scatter hundreds of bomblets across an airfield, damaging base facilities, destroying exposed aircraft, and cratering runways.
Hong Kong-based military commentator, Song Zhongping, said in SCMP that the new weapon would give the PLAAF greater flexibility. “It’s one of the most important advanced weapons for the Chinese military right now because it’s a very effective tool for attacking and destroying multiple types of ground targets at the same time,” Song said.
The U.S. equivalent to the Tianle 500 is the U.S. Navy and Air Force’s AGM-154A Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), which entered service in 1998, notes Mizokami. While carrying less submunitions, the latest JSOW version, the JSOW-ER (ER for extended range), Mizokami adds, replaces glide power for a turbojet engine giving it a significant 287-mile stand-off range.