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China Is Exporting Its Newest Mobile SAM

November 8, 2021

Via Chinese state media.

On the condition they aren’t in the NATO alliance or recognized as a NATO partner–or caught in a feud with Beijing–so many countries are now able to afford world-class air defenses made by China. Although Russia is very aggressive in promoting its exportable air defense technology China’s state-owned companies–and some private sector manufacturers–offer a broader catalog than any other competitor. The newest addition is the HQ-17AE, a road mobile short-range SAM launcher, that made its latest appearance in this year’s Air Show China. The HQ-17AE is easily comparable to the Russian-made Tor-M2 on a wheeled transporter but there’s no public confirmation if its manufacturer CASC had some Russian help.

This road mobile SAM made its first documented public appearance in October 2019 for an immense commemorative military parade. At the time its designation wasn’t printed on the vehicle unlike the HQ-6, HQ-12, HQ-9, or HQ-22’s at the same event in Beijing. During the parade the HQ-17’s were followed by the HQ-16 medium-range SAMs–the latter’s export variant the LY-80 was acquired by Pakistan. Their pairing suggested the HQ-16 and 17 complemented each other as a layered air defense network to cover the gaps in theater air defenses such as the HQ-9/9B and the HQ-22 long-range SAMs. It was only in 2021 when the HQ-17AE received glowing coverage by Chinese state media. Although a similar vehicle designated the FM-2000 was put on display at the Zhuhai Air Show in 2018 very little about its characteristics are known except it carries eight missiles in a vertical launcher. Just like the Tor-M2 its munitions pop out of their containers and ignite in mid-air.

What hasn’t been established is whether the development of the HQ-17AE was coordinated with another country that enjoys close military-to-military ties with China and its state-owned manufacturers. In late 2020 a new generation of SAMs manufactured by North Korea appeared at a parade in the capital. These consisted of a long-range theater level SAM and a short-range mobile SAM based on vertical launchers on a trailer. Within the span of a year Iran’s air defense branch conducted large-scale exercises involving its new road mobile SAMs. These included another Tor-based launcher identified as the “Dezful.” It can’t be ruled out that among the countries who are aligned against US hegemony in Asia there exists an active program to develop new types of air defenses based on common technology–in this case, the Russian Tor-M1/M2.

Even without the HQ-17AE China’s state-owned military industrial sector boasts a sizable catalog of short-range SAMs and if clients request, their production is transferable. Such is the case with the Iranian “Ya Zahra” short-range SAM. The quad launchers and their missiles are based on the HQ-7, a Chinese copy of the French-made Crotale SAM, but the Iranians installed theirs on a 6×6 truck. (Other Iranian air defenses based on Chinese technology are the Misagh MANPADS and the locally made copies of the HQ-2/S-75 SAM.) China has exported the HQ-7 and the improved HQ-7B to Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. Other Chinese short-range SAMs available for export are the HQ-6 and HQ-12. The latter was supplied to Myanmar’s armed forces and a production line for its missiles was even established locally.

The HQ-17AE joins three other new short-range air defense systems promoted for Air Show China in late September. Different manufacturers openly collaborate to develop these like CASIC’s FK-2000 that employs an eight-wheeled transporter. The FK-2000 is armed with 12 missiles and a pair of six-barrel rotary cannons. Its appearance invites comparisons with the Russian-made Kashtan close-in weapon systems meant for naval surface vessels. But with the FK-2000 CASIC envisioned a similar air defense weapon system on a wheeled transporter. Another air defense system from CASC–not CASIC–is the LY-70, which is based on a wheeled transporter as well, and carries eight medium-range SAMs and four short-range SAMs. As if the FK-2000 and LY-70 weren’t enough CASC is ready to export a direct energy weapon on a truck called the OW5 and it’s for neutralizing unmanned aircraft.

What makes the HQ-17AE appealing for end users is having a generational replacement for obsolete or non-functional air defenses, especially if these are of Soviet origin. Upgrading with multi-layered SAMs over existing anti-aircraft artillery is just as important. Militaries who must assemble complex air defenses from scratch are well-served by the HQ-17AE since it belongs to a broader network of related weapon systems such as the mid-range HQ-16/LY-70 and the long-range HQ-9/9B. Taken together these form a deterrent versus the air power of hostile neighbors or the risks posed by regional ballistic missile and combat drone proliferation.

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