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The HJ-73 Is Never Quitting The PLA

June 25, 2022
Via Chinese state media.

New evidence has revealed, contrary to the hype over its cutting-edge weapon systems, the PLA’s ground force are still training with its oldest portable anti-tank missile–the HJ-73. The Chinese analogue to the Soviet vintage Malyutka (NATO designation is “AT-3 Sagger”) is at least 50 years old by now and boasts few noticeable improvements aside from a redesigned warhead and a portable laser rangefinder that’s operated separately from the launcher supporting the small missile. The current variant of the HJ-73 with a dual warhead penetrates tank armor at least 400mm thick but at ranges far below its 3,000 meter or 3 kilometer maximum envelope.

Going by its nomenclature the Norinco HJ-73 began mass-production a full decade after the Soviets adopted the Malyutka, whose entry into service took place between 1963 and 1965. During the 1980s when Norinco acquired the technology to reproduce the Franco-German MILAN ATGM as the “HJ-8” or “Red Arrow-8” and then the US-made BGM-TOW as the “HJ-9” the HJ-73 was never replaced. Perhaps the reason why is how the PLA assessed how a regional war involving its ground forces unfolds. This would likely pit them against Vietnam or Taiwan whose armies kept older tanks such as the T-55 and the M48 Patton–models the HJ-73 with its reliable manually controlled wire-guidance can easily defeat. Like the Malyutka each HJ-73 is packed in a “suitcase” that a soldier carries by hand or on their back and then assembles on the ground. To prepare the weapon system the rail is installed on the suitcase and the missile is slid on top off it. The laser rangefinder and the manual controls can be used in close proximity or from a few feet away, where the operator and their partner are in concealment.

The updated lightweight day/night rangefinder of the HJ-73. Via Chinese state media.

Just like in the Soviet army the HJ-73 was adapted for vehicles too but the crucial difference is, like its portable variant, it was never replaced when alternatives are within reach. The HJ-73 was installed on the Type 86 infantry fighting vehicle, a Chinese copy of the BMP-1, and is a secondary armament on the WZ551 wheeled APC that supports a turret for a 30mm cannon. For cost-saving reasons the HJ-73 endured beyond the 2000s and appeared on other combat vehicles like the ZBD-03 airborne troop carrier, the ZBD-05 amphibious transport, and the ubiquitous ZBL-09 8×8 APC–its export designation is “VN1”–whose turret carries two missiles on rails on either of its sides. The HJ-73 has not been pulled from Norinco’s export catalog as it’s been integrated with several weapon stations. Newer combat vehicles have ditched the HJ-73 ATGM for contemporary missiles.

There’s no proof of the HJ-73 ATGM’s being sunseted when entire PLA formations receive combat vehicles like the ZBL-09 that carry these missiles. For infantry operators the HJ-73’s best characteristics are getting better through upgrades. In 2021 Chinese media claimed the effective range of a single HJ-73 missile now reached 4,000 meters or 4 km! Whether true or not the HJ-73 does have a smaller and easily collapsible rangefinder and control unit available over the outdated “periscope” sights from the 1980s. The improved HJ-73’s should complement the army’s inventory of HJ-8 ATGM’s and recoilless launchers, whose total numbers are no doubt immense. By comparison, the Soviet vintage Malyutka is phased out by the Russian armed forces.

Notice the original rangefinder and control unit for the HJ-73. Via Chinese state media.

Three other Asian countries are known to manufacture the Malyutka: Iran, North Korea, and Vietnam. The Iranian “Raad” is suspected to have originated as the HJ-73 although it evolved as production ramped up in the 1990s. Meanwhile, North Korea and Vietnam reproduce the original Malyutka and have large quantities in storage. Other countries that manufacture the same missiles are Bulgaria, Egypt, Romania, and Serbia. Whether a dormant production line is maintained in Russia today can’t be verified as it overproduces long-range anti-tank missiles and sells these everywhere. The single best characteristic of the HJ-73 and the Malyutka are their portability, with the entire system’s dimensions and heft far below Western ATGMs from the Cold War until the present. The HJ-73’s missile remains deadly even at ranges inferior to the current-generation of anti-tank missiles. Serbia in particular offers a redesigned Malyutka with improved guidance and a longer airframe to double its effective range.

A baffling aspect of Norinco’s catalog for anti-tank missiles is they are now grouped as two “families” called the Red Arrows and the air-launched Blue Arrows when in reality these brands lump together different missile types. (The latter are tailored for combat drones and helicopters.) Of course, the HJ-73 belongs to the former even if Norinco would rather promote the more advanced siblings the HJ-8, HJ-9, HJ-10, HJ-11, and the HJ-12. Other Chinese military-industrial enterprises have their own ATGMs and the sheer variety of them might be problematic for the regular armed forces and its present inventory. So keeping the HJ-73 stockpile is no doubt cheaper and it works as intended regardless of the climate or terrain. It’s a strange choice but, given the PLA’s immense tank fleet and dedicated “tank destroyers” armed with missiles, isn’t too extraordinary.

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