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Are China And Iraq Working On A Huge Arms Deal?

January 1, 2017

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The government of Iraq could be on the verge of acquiring a theater air defense system this year. But it won’t be coming from the US. In what appears to be a rekindling of old ties Baghdad and Beijing are hammering out a multi-billion dollar deal for advanced weaponry, including long-range SAMs. Although facts are scarce at present the implications of this purchase are worth examining.

Details were first published by IHS Jane’s on November 30 last year. It cited an Iraqi news agency as its only source and mentioned the HQ-9, an air defense system analogous to the Russian S-300, among a grocery list of arms Baghdad wanted.

The arms deal was ignored by other defense media outlets except for Strategy Page, which scrutinized the HQ-9’s capabilities. The lack of coverage is understandable given the scant details about the subject matter and zero confirmation from official Iraqi sources.

If proven true, however, Baghdad is making a serious investment. The HQ-9 manufactured by the China Precision Machinery Import Export Corporation (CPMIEC) is perfect for defending bases and critical infrastructure from air attack. In 2013 Turkey went as far as publicizing its intent to acquire and assemble the HQ-9, which goes by the export designation FD-2000, as part of its military modernization.

The deal fell apart under pressure from NATO member states who remain the primary suppliers (aside from local firms) of Turkey’s armed forces. But in the last few years the HQ-9 found an eager clientele in the unlikeliest corner of the world. Between 2014 and 2015 the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan received HQ-9 / FD-2000 batteries as payment for natural gas sold to China.

The transfer was a milestone of sorts since it marked China’s biggest arms sale yet to Central Asia. But why Iraq needs a theater air defense system just when its military is bogged down fighting ISIS is a bit perplexing. Since 2003 the Iraqi armed forces and police were trained and reorganized with US assistance for a domestic security role. This orientation crumbled in 2014 when Mosul fell to ISIS and the army suffered appalling material losses it hasn’t recovered from.

As the battle to recapture Mosul grinds on, the Iraqi military and its proxies remain ill-equipped for the task with their fleets of trucks and assorted tanks. This, along with a possible disdain for limited US aid, could explain why Baghdad is once again turning to Beijing, whose small arms and light weapons have enjoyed constant use in Iraq’s troubles. The alleged choice of the HQ-9 does hint at a commitment to long-term modernization; it could revive Iraq’s once formidable air defenses, which all but disappeared after the US-led invasion.

China proved a dependable trade ally during the Saddam-era when it was both customer (for oil) and armorer for the regime fighting a war of attrition against Iran. China’s military and technical assistance to Iraq in the 1980s was beyond generous. It participated in modernizing the country’s fledgling arms industry and sent thousands of laborers to work on government projects like the Mosul Dam.

Thousands of medium tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and towed howitzers that remained in use for almost 30 years gave Iraqi’s career soldiers a keen appreciation for Chinese-made weapon systems. Given the advanced state of China’s domestic arms industry today oil-rich Iraq is a perfect customer for genuine war-fighting products, including new tanks, APCs, missiles, and UAVs–like the armed CH-4 drones Iraq received in 2015.

It might take months before further details about this arms deal surface. Iraqi officials aren’t too forthcoming on what they buy for their soldiers unless these are US aid. In recent years, for example, weapons and equipment bought from Spain, South Korea, and Bulgaria were only revealed when leaked thru social media.

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