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The Chinese military is building a new and mysterious missile that could cripple American air power. The weapon, known as the PL-XX missile is a very-long-range missile designed to strike enemy aircraft.

The goal is to shoot down the tankers, airborne early warning planes, and other support aircraft that military combat jets rely upon during wartime. Stripped of these forces, American air power would operate at a serious disadvantage, shifting the air battle in China’s favor.

The new missile carries the typical “PL” designation common to Chinese air-to-air missiles. At 5.5 meters, PL-XX is thought to have a range exceeding 160 kilometers, the typical maximum range of air-to-air missiles.

China’s new missile most likely would work like this: In a future air battle, a Chengdu J-20 fighter loaded with PL-XX would attempt to fly around U.S. fighters to get behind them and search for a tanker or AWACs plane. If it finds such a target, the J-20 would launch the missile from long range, then disengage. Even if the missile misses, the danger might force U.S. support aircraft to fly farther behind friendly lines, limiting their effectiveness in general.

Warplanes need plenty of support to reach their wartime potential. In that way, tankers, command and control aircraft, and reconnaissance planes are the backbone that let fighters operate at long ranges.

For example, an AWACs E-3 Sentry can detect enemy aircraft at longer ranges and vector in American fighters flying with their own radars off—a technique that makes them harder to detect.

Without these planes, U.S. forces would operate at a severe disadvantage. Stealth fighter jets would have to fly with their radars constantly on to search for enemies, which would make them detectable by enemies.

Coordination of the air battle would become more difficult and inefficient, controlled by individual pilots already flying their own combat missions. Deprived of the ability to refuel in midair, targets deep behind enemy lines would become off-limits and fighters would patrol at shorter ranges.

The American military is aware of the threat to its aircraft, and is working to make support aircraft more survivable. The Air Force is looking to install defensive systems—including lasers—to protect tankers and other large support aircraft. It is also looking at developing a new, stealthy tanker, known as KC-Z, as reported in popularmechanics.com.