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The Chinese HQ-22 SAM Is Wrapped In Mystery

November 8, 2019

Via Chinese media.

The October 1 military parade in Beijing was historic not just for its importance–commemorating seven decades of Communist rule in China–but the awesome hardware it advertised. The PLA’s extra-territorial ambitions are far from secret but the extent its arsenal has grown is unprecedented. Many analysts and experts were surprised by the advanced technology shown at the parade. But even back-to-back coverage by Chinese media neglected some of the equipment. When the anti-aircraft systems rolled by, for example, the HQ-22’s were almost excised from the official broadcast. In fact, compared to the dozens of missiles being rolled out it barely received a few seconds onscreen.

What is the HQ-22, anyway?

The PLA and its branches designate their anti-aircraft weapons with the “HQ” nomenclature. The higher the corresponding number, the newer the system. For example, the HQ-2 is the oldest SAM in the PLA’s inventory and is a copy of the Soviet S-75/NATO SA-2 that earned its reputation during the Vietnam War and the Yom Kippur War. The Russian military may no longer have any use for its antiquated SA-2’s but the PLA’s HQ-2’s remain in service. Now keep in mind the numbers assigned to each “HQ” SAM don’t correspond to its role. The enduring HQ-7/7B from the 1980s is a short-range SAM based on the French Crotale while the new-ish HQ-16 is a medium-range SAM comparable (but not the same as) the Soviet SA-6.

It’s apparent the PLA and PLAAF’s air defenses are a confusing mix but it’s remarkable how they’ve all been integrated to form a network for protecting whole swathes of China. Based on its appearance-a semi-trailer mounting four launch tubes–the HQ-22 is a medium- to long-range SAM that complements the HQ-9/9B. The HQ-9 is deemed a Chinese variant of the popular Russian S-300 from the 1990s and it has since been improved with the HQ-9B that also participated in the October 1 parade. Now if the HQ-9B is an improvement of the existing HQ-9, which has been exported to at least two countries, what role does the HQ-22 fulfill?

Determining the HQ-22’s characteristics is difficult at the moment since even China’s zealous media coverage (in other words, propaganda) of PLA activities reveals close to nothing about it. Trawling the web for open sources on its origins and developments brings meager results and the HQ-22 was only identified as recently as 2017. It’s unhelpful to assume the HQ-22, like its predecessor the HQ-9, is analogous to a Russian SAM like the S-400 Triumf, which Beijing acquired in a multibillion dollar deal. To understand why the PLA and PLAAF air defense units adopted another next-generation SAM a few broad assumptions can be established.

First, the HQ-22’s layout is suited for theater defense type SAMs. This means a full battalion, which is accompanied by shorter range SAMs, covers at least a 200 kilometer radius. HQ-22 batteries no doubt have separate command and control stations for directing the launchers and, in keeping with Chinese and Russian doctrine, separate radars on mobile platforms for detection and target acquisition. If the HQ-22 is indeed a generation ahead of the HQ-9/9B then its missiles engage targets at altitudes beyond 20,000 meters, giving them a possible anti-ballistic missile role. But during the Air Show China 2021 exhibition it was revealed the HQ-22 exists to be networked with other anti-aircraft systems–its job is to “plug the gaps” that the HQ-9’s own coverage may leave.

Second, the PLA and PLAAF need layered air and missile defenses to defeat its closest adversaries in a hypothetical war scenario. Besides the US Navy’s carrier strike groups, a host of US allies need to be dealt with. Neither Japan, South Korea, nor Taiwan possess enough long-range cruise missiles to threaten the mainland but two of these East Asian countries operate stealth aircraft. Introducing newer and more precise SAMs to enhance existing air defenses is the best countermeasure against stealth aircraft and perhaps supersonic missiles that may arrive in the 2020s. India also looms as a serious adversary of China and, unlike Japan, maintains a nuclear arsenal and aspires to develop its own stealth aircraft. If the HQ-22 is the pinnacle of Chinese anti-aircraft weapons at the moment, then its purpose is to neutralize the coming aerial threats that could be leveraged against the country.

Of course, the HQ-22 does exist to keep the US Air Force and Navy on their toes.

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