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The Norinco HJ-12 Has Found A Home

December 26, 2021
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Via Chinese state media.

The shoulder-fired missile launcher everybody compares to Raytheon’s FGM-148 Javelin is now in service with a specific branch of China’s armed forces. In late November footage of PLA Airborne exercises showed soldiers training with the Hong Jian 12 or HJ-12 ATGM. This comes several years after the weapon system became known to the world. Apparently, Norinco was keen on exporting it before it was delivered to the PLA. This fits a pattern where the output of China’s state-owned conglomerates exceeds the armed forces’ own plans for either augmenting or replacing their current equipment.

A series produced by a state-owned media company featuring a presenter who embeds with a military unit became an infomercial for the HJ-12’s entry into service. For decades the PLA’s ground forces and elite formations were trained with the HJ-73, a locally made variant of the Soviet 9K11 Malyutka, and the HJ-8 that borrowed aspects of NATO anti-tank missile launchers. It turns out the PLAAF airborne, who are now transitioning to a new doctrine that relies on helicopters, are in the process of familiarizing themselves with the HJ-12. Just like the US-made Javelin the HJ-12 is a cylindrical launch tube joined to a portable handheld command unit that integrates its controls and sights.

The HJ-12’s munitions follows a top attack pattern where it shoots out of its container before accelerating at a steep angle as it approaches its target. As an anti-armor munition the HJ-12 detonates over the roof or the turret of a vehicle and impairs the occupants or detonates the ammunition magazine. Aside from tanks the missile is a capable anti-fortification weapon or “bunker buster.” The appeal of the HJ-12 for the airborne is probably its fire and forget targeting that should be an improvement over the line-of-sight guidance with older anti-tank missile launchers like the HJ-8.

The portable components of the HJ-12 can be another appealing detail but the airborne are well-known to keep many different heavy weapons, from mortars to recoilless rifles. So the encumbrance of a particular armament doesn’t seem too important. A curious omission from the publicity surrounding the HJ-12 is the non-existent bipod or tripod for mounting the launcher. Almost every other anti-tank missile launcher with top attack munitions have portable mounts. The French-made MMP, the Israeli-made Spike MR/LR/LR2, and the South Korean-made Raybolt have folding tripods included in the missile launcher’s kit. The Javelin does have its own folding tripod but the US Army disregarded this from its launchers.

Active duty US soldiers who have firsthand experience using the Javelin will recognize how the PLAAF airborne are training with the HJ-12. Once the missile container is attached to the command unit the operator can choose either a standing or sitting position when preparing to fire. If seated on open ground (without cover) it’s important there are no obstructions nearby that blocks the operator’s sights or the missile’s trajectory. There are details of the HJ-12 that resist analysis such as its effective range under 1,000 meters and over 2,000 meters. In 2020 Lockheed Martin and Raytheon announced that deliveries to the US Army had begun for the FGM-148F Javelin that increased the missiles range to 4,000 meters and its armor penetration. Both companies are also collaborating to redesign the command launch unit (CLU) for portability and weight reductions.

With few exceptions Chinese-made anti-tank missiles have done poorly in the global market. Norinco has enjoyed unrestricted access to a diverse clientele since the 1970s but exports have trailed the competition from Europe, Israel, and Russia. Since the 1980s generous technology transfers for anti-tank missile production in Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan never led to stronger demand. It wasn’t until 2020 when Chinese media reported that HJ-12E ATGMs were delivered to an international customer. This achievement came seven years after the HJ-12 was unveiled. A drawback for this particular anti-tank missile launcher is countries now prefer assembling their own non-line-of-sight missile launchers according to their army’s needs. Still, Norinco’s export catalog for precision guided munitions is bigger than ever and the variety of anti-tank weapons from China’s military industry is unmatched.

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