An image released online by the Chinese Air Force has led to speculation that the military is testing a beyond-visual-range, air-to-air missile in combat drills.
The photo, recently uploaded to the People's Liberation Army website, shows a J-11B twin-engine fighter jet carrying a large missile - it stretches about one-fourth of the length of the 22-meter-long aircraft - during Red Sword 2016, an aerial warfare exercise over a northwestern desert in November.
Nearly 100 aircraft as well as air defense and electronic countermeasure units from two theater commands participated in the exercise, the Air Force said.
It comes after photographs circulated on weapons websites late last year of a Chinese J-16 strike fighter carrying a nearly identical missile.
A spokesman for the Air Force was unavailable for comment on Wednesday, and no official introduction of the potential new weapon has been disclosed by the PLA or defense contractors. However, its appearance has attracted attention from military enthusiasts, many of whom say such a missile would boost the Air Force's combat capabilities.
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 kilometers.
Fu Qianshao, an equipment researcher with the PLA Air Force, said on Tuesday that he believes China has developed a new missile that can hit high-value targets such as early-warning planes and aerial refueling 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, he said. However, all of them are unsuitable for combating early-warning planes because of their short ranges.
Moreover, he added, long-range ground-to-air missiles are restricted by their fixed deployment when dealing with planes far away.
"The best solution to this problem I can figure out 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."
He said the missile could have a maximum range of 400 km, farther than any air-to-air missiles used by Western air forces. He added that based on his experience, an ultralong-range missile would enter the the stratosphere - at an altitude of 20 to 50 km - and continue its flight there until it detects its target and dives to strike.
In addition, 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, editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, said he has been unable to verify the missile in the PLA picture. However, he suggested that the superlong range of such a missile would mean it could use satellites to relay data and control signals.
The United States' longest-range air-to-air missile is the AIM-120D, which has an operational range of up to 200 km. Russia also has the R-37 and K-100 air-to-air missiles, which their designers say have operational ranges of up to 400 km.