April 2, 2014 defense-aerospace.com
(Source: The International Relations and Security Network; issued March 28, 2014)
Is The FD-2000 An Albatross Or A Raptor-Killer?
Why is China proposing to sell FD-2000 anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey? James Hasik thinks there are three possible reasons – Turkey is impressed with the system, China isn’t expecting a military confrontation with America any time soon, or internal disputes are clouding Beijing’s decision-making processes.
The Hurriyet Daily News reported [...] that enthusiasm has begun to wane amongst local subcontractors in CPMIEC’s proposed sale of FD-2000 anti-aircraft missile batteries to Turkey. CPMIEC has been blacklisted by the US government under the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act, and Turkish firms are wary of winding up on the wrong side of the world’s biggest customer. As early as last October, Raytheon and Eurosam (MBDA and Thales’s joint venture) were asked to extend their pricing, and the bidding was again extended in January, so this deal is hardly done. Yet unexplained remains the motivation from the Chinese side. Why did Beijing allow CPMIEC to offer an important missile system to a NATO ally of the United States?
The actual quality of the product is hard to discern through public sources, and the heritage can be confusing. The FD-2000 is the export version of the HQ-9, itself originally a clone of the S-300 from Russia’s Almaz-Antey. Allied governments assuredly have better information. As I wrote earlier, the Slovak Air Force first brought its S-300s to a NATO exercise in 2005. The Hellenic Air Force has had 12 launchers since 2000, and test-fired some missiles back in December. The Bulgarians have the weapon too. Consider the Croatian battery that was actually sold to the US in 2003, and you can guarantee that the S-300 has been analyzed down to the smallest screw.
The Chinese missile is not quite the same, though it’s not clear whether it’s better or worse. Many Chinese companies are excellent contract manufacturers, and the industry may have tricked out the old Soviet technology. The record, however, is not good. Chinese efforts to copy Russian aircraft and engines have been thus far unimpressive, so one might wonder about the radars and missiles too. Indeed, in one second-hand report, I heard the FD-2000 described as the air defense equivalent "of a 1991 Hyundai.” Even at a Volkswagen price, that’s not a good deal.
But actual quality is not the issue: what matters in discerning motivation is Chinese perception of that quality. So suppose that the Chinese government actually would agree that the FD-2000 is effectively junk. Selling it to Turkey would put it into the NATO exercise cycle, and as many as 20 air forces could eventually fly against it to test its mettle. If CPMIEC had indeed sold the Turks a $3 billion albatross, word would get around, and the brand image of Chinese weapons would drop even lower than it is today. The Americans would be expected to grasp just how unimpressive China’s air defenses really were. So it’s unlikely that the export version could really be much less impressive than the domestic model.
On the other hand, over at Airpower Australia, Carlo Kopp and Peter Goon are much more impressed with the HQ-9, and it’s conceivable that their sources are Chinese and trustworthy. Suppose then that the Chinese government is quite proud of the quality of the FD-2000. Selling it to Turkey would put it into the NATO exercise cycle, and as many as 20 air forces could eventually fly against it. Then, if the FD-2000 were indeed a Raptor-killer, the Americans could be expected eventually to have a full understanding of just how impressive China’s air defenses really were. But they might not stay impressive for long, as the Americans would furiously work on countermeasures, and with the actual threat system in hand. So it’s unlikely that the Chinese expect to rely on a weapon like the FD-2000 for defense against the US.
This leaves at least three possibilities. The first is that the Chinese have advanced so far in air defense technology that the HD-2000 will be at least modestly impressive to the Turks and their allies, but still nothing compared to what the HQ-9 really is. That certainly would fit with the image that the most alarmed observers hold of China’s ballistic missile technology. But again, the track record in other areas in less impressive.
The second possibility is that the Chinese don’t care, as they consider the prospect of war with the United States quite remote. In that figuring, the posturing over shoals in the South China Sea, the bumper-car games with American ships, the Hainan Island incident, and every other “act of belligerent idiocy from Beijing," as Sydney Freedberg recently termed the histrionics, really are just a game. They’re all stage-managed Cold War antics, just like the Soviets used to enjoy. The bluster and the accompanying military modernization campaign is to show that China is not just the world’s outsourced manufacturing floor, but a modern state that should be taken seriously politically. They could do this with far more class and subtlety, but a variety of factors foreign and domestic keep them on the edge.
The third possibility is that the Chinese decision wasn’t all that strategically coherent. Perhaps this intended sale is not the result of a deep calculation by the Chinese government, but instead the outcome of a power-contest among Chinese elites, or the resultant of the military’s export sales regime just doing what it does.
Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence to support any of these scenarios. The first could be rather comforting around the Pacific Rim, depending on Chinese intentions. The second is quite unsettling for the US and its allies in that region. The third is intriguing, and would argue for a greater effort to understand Chinese interagency politics. Regardless, if the Chinese have badly misjudged their own product, we would know—assuming that the deal closes—when the Turks start howling. If they do know what they’re selling, we might never know—or just not know until the shooting starts.