A Glimpse into China’s Next-Generation Air Defense

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With a resounding “thud”, a missile emerged from the dust, taking to the skies. This scene from military reports showcased the firing of a new type of air defense missile by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force. Remarkably, only 25 days after its induction, a successful live-fire test was carried out, with four missiles hitting four targets flawlessly.

Although it’s deemed new, this air defense missile is actually a part of the Hongqi-9 air defense system. From the related images, it’s evident that this newly tested missile is the small diameter interceptor of the Hongqi-9. Its primary role is to work alongside larger medium to long-range air defense missiles, enhancing the system’s resistance to saturation attacks.

Earlier versions of the Hongqi-9, even the substantially upgraded Hongqi-9B, were only equipped with larger interceptors. These missiles boasted significant range, high speed, and destructive power. However, their agility and the firepower density of their launch vehicles were compromised. The smaller interceptors have enhanced maneuverability and a better hit rate against low-altitude targets. Thanks to the missile’s smaller size, the Hongqi-9 launcher, previously holding 4 missiles, can now accommodate 8, doubling its firepower.

The space taken up by two small diameter interceptors is equivalent to one larger missile, allowing for a doubling in ammo storage.

Technological advancements have rendered modern air raid weapons increasingly compact, low-cost, intelligent, and long-ranged. On Ukrainian battlefields, Russia adapted its older FAB-1500 bombs with GLONASS/IMU guidance kits and glide wings, transforming them into area-denial weapons. This evolution necessitates that new-generation air defense systems be equipped to counter these cost-effective precision-guided munitions.

Sophisticated medium to long-range air defense missiles are expensive. For instance, a single SM-6 naval air missile from the U.S. Navy costs close to 5 million dollars. Using such costly missiles against affordable weapons like the FAB-1500 is inefficient. Leaving aside interception rates, the sheer cost could bankrupt the defending side.

Russian forces utilize simple glide-wing guided bombs.

Hence, new-generation air defense strategies have introduced the concept of an “integrated air defense system”. Instead of relying on a single missile type, these systems can command and control multiple missile varieties, deploying specific missiles against specific threats. This diversification, built upon a foundational missile design, allows for task specialization, missile simplification, reduced R&D costs, and easier logistics.

Well-known systems like the S-400 have added the 9M96E and 9M96E2 medium to short-range air defense missiles. The former handles targets within 50 kilometers, while the latter boosts this range to around 100 kilometers. Europe’s Aster missile system includes the Aster-15 and Aster-30 variants, differing mainly in their boosters and consequent ranges. Similarly, the U.S. Navy integrated the ESSM missile into the Aegis system for handling medium to short-range, low-cost threats.

The S-400 has incorporated the 9M96E and 9M96E2 medium to short-range missiles.

According to public data from the Zhuhai Airshow, the domestically-produced Hongqi-9BE has a range of 260 kilometers, potentially exceeding 300 kilometers for its self-use model. This metric is comparable to the SM-6 and the long-range interceptors of the S-400. Such missiles are mainly intended to counter high-value air assets like combat aircraft, AWACS, and electronic warfare aircraft, even tackling some anti-ballistic missile tasks. This necessitates extending the interception radius, leading to larger missile designs.

However, these large interceptors are not suitable against external ammunition, drones, and cruise missiles. Therefore, the Hongqi-9B integrates relatively lightweight missiles, sacrificing some range for better agility, lower cost, and superior defense against low-value airborne threats. Additionally, an inner interception net has been added to the Hongqi-9B’s combat unit, raising the system’s interception probability.

In terms of the launch tube volume and firing procedure, the Hongqi-9’s small diameter interceptor seems equivalent to the 9M96E2. It employs an active radar guidance system, a mainstay of China’s new-generation air defense missiles. The advantage of this system lies in its enhanced multi-target interception capabilities and improved resistance to saturation attacks. The missile continues to utilize the safer cold launch method. Due to its reduced size and weight, one missile tube can now accommodate two missiles, thereby better countering saturation attacks.

The interceptor hasn’t adopted the popular “four missiles per pit” design but has conservatively chosen “two missiles per pit”, possibly to ensure adequate range. Its range likely exceeds the 120 kilometers of the 9M96E2, possibly reaching around 150 kilometers. This design ensures denser firepower distribution and higher interception efficiency. Considering the advanced airborne threats from formidable adversaries like the U.S. military, the air defense system must push its boundaries outward, providing ample defense time for inner layers.

The 9M96E2 with its “four missiles per pit” configuration.

However, this doesn’t imply China’s neglect of compact air defense missile development. In fact, the “four missiles per pit” concept has been delegated to end-game defense systems. New Chinese air defense missiles like the FM-3000N have realized this quad-loading design. Its performance is similar or close to the American ESSM, boasting a maximum range of 50 kilometers and active radar guidance to resist saturation attacks. This missile is primarily aimed at mid to short-range, low to medium-altitude threats, particularly cost-effective external attack weapons.

Given the simplicity and affordability of weapons like the JDAM and FAB-1500, even using a missile like the FM-3000N for interception seems wasteful. Thus, China has combined systems like the FM-3000N with close-range anti-ballistic Gatling guns, creating a missile-gun combined air defense system. This approach enhances interception cost-efficiency. The new Chinese end-game missile-gun combined defense system can work in conjunction with long-range systems like the Hongqi-9B or operate independently, offering flexibility and higher efficacy.

The FM-3000N air defense missile.

In summary, China’s next-generation air defense systems are taking shape. They promise enhanced performance, formidable interception capabilities, wider adaptability, and the capacity to effectively resist formidable adversaries in future warfare. These systems are poised to safeguard the smooth conduct of PLA operations, providing a robust defense backbone to ensure victorious outcomes.

Source: Wang Yanan

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