Air Defense: China Slips Past Russia

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April 23, 2020: China is gradually replacing its Russian air defense systems with Chinse made equipment. The latest development was the success of the new HQ-9B system, with its longer-range missiles and superior (to Russian systems) radars and computers. The fifth HQ-9B battery was recently deployed and the HQ-9C is completing its development.

Older HQ-9 batteries are being upgraded to the HQ-9B standards by replacing fire control equipment so that the battery can use the longer range (about 300 kilometers) missiles and improved guidance systems. China has also designed many surveillance and tracking radars to work with HQ-9 batteries. China has always touted the superior computers and electronic systems in the HQ-9 compared to the Russian S-300. China pointed out that HQ-9 was developed a decade later than the first S-300 systems and that China has a larger and more advanced electronics and computer industry than Russia.

This replacement effort has been going since 2000 when the Chinese HQ-9 system, the Chinese equivalent of the Russian S-300 and American Patriot, had been in service for several years and proved itself reliable. HQ-9 development began in the 1980s, about the same time the S-300 entered wide service. China bought more S-300s after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. At the time Russia was desperate for export sales and willing to give China items that formerly were not exported. For a while, China built S-300 under license (as the HQ-10) but that was mainly an opportunity to develop knowledge and skills needed to build a better Chinese version. This was the HQ-9, which entered service in 1997.

Currently, most Chinese long-range antiaircraft systems are HQ-9s while a shrinking number are Russian S-300s and S-400s. Back in 2015 about a quarter of Chinese air defense systems were Russian and now it is closer to ten percent.

In 2003 China began delivering the HQ-9 to its army and navy (on ships). In the beginning, the HQ-9 was a much less capable system, at least on paper. A decade of development and upgrades is believed to have benefitted from data stolen from similar American and Russian systems. The HQ-9 radar apparently derived a lot of technology from that used in the Russian S-300 system. The HQ-9 missile itself is similar to the U.S. "Patriot." The first HQ-9 missiles had a max range of about 100 kilometers, weighed 1.3 tons, and had a passive (no broadcasting) seeker in the missile. The Patriot missile weighs a ton (for the 70 kilometer range version) and a third of a ton for the 20 kilometer range anti-missile only version. The S-300 missiles weigh 1.8 tons and have a range of 200 kilometers. The HQ-9 export model, FD-2000, is believed to have removed the more obvious items stolen from American and Russian systems. This reduces capability a bit but makes the FD-2000 more resistant to lawsuits over stolen technology.

HQ-9 batteries currently use missiles with a range of 200 or 300 kilometers. There are a growing number of search radars available, many of them superior to anything the Russians have.

HQ-9 units are mobile. The search radars (often a Type 120) is carried and operated from a heavy truck. This radar can be put into service in less than 15 minutes and shut down and be on the road again in 10 minutes. The Type 120 has a max detection range of 300 kilometers. China will sell the HQ-9 and Type 120 radar to export customers separately, and in 2013 rebels captured a Type 120 in Syria (which does not have HQ-9).

Most of the HQ-9 systems used by the Chinese army are mobile. Army HQ-9 brigades have a brigade headquarters (with a command vehicle and four trucks for communications and maintenance) and six firing battalions (each with a missile control vehicle, a targeting radar vehicle, a search radar vehicle, and 8 missile-launch-vehicles, each carrying 4 missiles in containers).

Neither the S-300 nor HQ-9 has been tested in combat. This is important because Russian designed air defense systems tend to perform poorly in combat. Even the Russian SA-6 missile systems that Egypt used in 1973, and were initially a surprise to the Israelis, were soon countered and did not stop the Israelis from getting through. While the best sales technique is to push the products' track record, you have to do just the opposite with Russian and Chinese anti-aircraft systems. Thus, the Russians, and now the Chinese with their FD-2000, emphasize low price, impressive specifications, test results, and potential. The Chinese are also very tolerant of selling for inflated prices that allow the receiving country to distribute generous bribes to the senior officials involved.

Since late 2019 Chinese media have been openly criticizing the poor performance of S-300 and S-400 systems in Syria and bluntly suggesting that Syria ought to buy the FD-2000.

China has not had much success in finding customers for the FD-2000. Turkey, Egypt and Iraq showed interest but never placed an order. In 2016 Iraq apparently agreed to spend $2.5 billion to buy a brigade of Chinese FD-2000 air defense system. China was willing to provide credit so Iraq can delay payments for a while and then pay for the system over a period of years. Iraq has bought advanced weapons from China before. In 2015 Iraq was able to purchase Chinese CH-4 UAVs. This is a system very similar to the American Predator. FD-2000 is the export version of the HQ-9, an anti-aircraft system that successfully shot down a ballistic missile in 2010 and is gaining a reputation of being an inexpensive substitute for the American Patriot or Russian S-300. This anti-missile capability is important for potential export customers and China let everyone know about it. The HQ-9 is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Patriot.

Iraq did not follow through with the FD-2000 purchase, apparently because of opposition from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran. None of these countries wanted Iraq to establish effective air defenses, which the Chinese could take as a compliment of sorts.

 


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