Hongqi-16 launchers. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Hongqi-16 launchers. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Every summer the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducts a major air defense exercise at its western theater command’s air force experimental training base. The anti-aircraft brigade of the 79th group army was the main participant in this year’s drill, on August 22.

The exercise evaluated the unit’s radar system, command and control network, intercept capabilities, electronic and cyber warfare abilities, mobility and logistics. The batteries engaged a variety of aircraft, including the J-10, J-11, Mil Mi-171, Harbin Z-9 and an assortment of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

Reporting, Chinese state media gave particular attention to the Hongqi-16 (HQ-16), one of the PLA’s most prized surface-to-air missiles.

Earlier this month, video and photographic evidence surfaced online that shows China moving trainloads of HQ-16 and HQ-17 missiles to Tibet as the standoff with India at Doklam continues.

The HQ-16 is a third-generation medium-range air defense missile system. Inspired by the Russian Buk, the HQ-16 has a 40 km maximum range of fire. Cold-launched vertically, it takes 13 minutes for a moving HQ-16 to load and fire missiles armed with 70kg warheads.

The transporting of HQ missiles to Tibet shows the PLA is reinforcing its layered air defense arrangement in anticipation of Indian air power

The HQ-16 can lock-on eight targets and engage four simultaneously. Its missile has a claimed maximum flight speed of Mach 2.8, with a single-hit probability rate of between 70% and 98%. In 2016, an upgraded version known as the HQ-16B was unveiled with a greater range of fire at 70 km.

A battery of HQ-16 consists of four launch vehicles, a target searching radar vehicle, a tracking and guidance radar vehicle, a command and control vehicle, missile transport and reloading vehicles and power supply trucks. The HQ-16 is generally used to defend stationary assets.

The HQ-17, however, is highly mobile. Sitting on an all-terrain tracked chassis, the HQ-17 usually accompanies fast-moving armored units. An improved version of the Russian Tor-M1, the HQ-17 has a 12 km range of fire.

Like the HQ-16, the HQ-17 uses vertical cold launchers against enemy jets, helicopters, smart bombs, cruise missiles and UAVs. But unlike the former, one HQ-17 vehicle combines all functions of an HQ-16 battery, empowering it with greater mobility. It takes ten seconds for a moving HQ-17 to engage an enemy. Carrying eight 9M331 missiles with a maximum flight speed of Mach 2.3, an HQ-17 can engage two targets simultaneously.

The HQ-17’s claimed hit probability against cruise missiles is between 56% and 99%; against fighter jets it’s between 45% and 93%; and against helicopters 82% and 98%.

The transporting of HQ missiles to Tibet shows the PLA is reinforcing its layered air defense arrangement in anticipation of Indian air power. The systems’ suitability for operating on the high plateau was confirmed at an exercise, in May, in Tibet’s Tanggula Mountains.

When reflecting on the 1962 war with China, Indian generals often blame their country’s defeat on its misuse of air power. Many believe the war’s outcome would have been quite different had India’s air force participated in an offensive role.

A recent Vayu Aerospace study concluded that the PLA air force would be at a disadvantage in a future war due to Tibet’s extreme climate, which would will limit the payload and combat radius of Chinese aircraft.

Last year, India deployed supersonic BrahMos missiles to Arunachal Pradesh near Tibet. In June, the Indian army announced its plans to send a squadron of HAL Dhruv helicopters to the Chinese border. More recently, the Indian defense ministry approved a deal to purchase six US-made AH-64 Apache attack helicopters for the army aviation corps and announced that it is looking to procure 234 naval helicopters, at a cost of US$5 billion. On August 24, the Indian air force added six C-130J Super Hercules strategic aircraft to its Arjan Singh base in Panagarh, 470 km from Doklam.

The Chinese high command understands India’s assumption of achieving air supremacy in the next war. However the PLA is quietly putting together a neat little surprise for India’s flyboys.

Follow the author on Twitter @MrZiYang.

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