China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has considered air defence to be a priority field of investment since the early 1990s, largely as a result of the overwhelming defeat of the Iraqi Army after the U.S. and its allies gained total air superiority during the Gulf War. The PLA vastly expanded its air defence capabilities from this time, with parallel programs to acquire state of the art Russian systems and to develop more capable systems domestically through increased investment in research and development. Included in this investment strategy were both new combat aircraft optimised for an air superiority role, and new ground based anti aircraft systems – with the PLA ordering the Soviet Su-27 and S-300PMU for these respective purposes within months of Iraq’s defeat. The PLA had until this point had a negligible air defence capability, not only due to the obsolete nature of its fighter fleet but also due to its reliance on 1950s Soviet surface to air missile technologies which were far from sufficient to counter a coordinated suppression campaign by a modern air force.
China would go on to purchase the S-300PMU-2 and S-400 systems from Russia following the Soviet collapse, and its indigenous HQ-9 long range air defence system which provided a domestic analogue to the S-300 was declared combat ready near the turn of the century. While the focus on China’s modernisation efforts for its ground based air defences has primarily focused on its long range systems, both Russian sourced and indigenous, some of the PLA’s most prolific advances have been in the fields of short and medium ranged systems – most notable among which has been the HQ-16.
The HQ-16 entered service in 2011, and while several Western analysts have claimed that the platform is a derivative of the Russian BuK-M2 system the very significant differences between the two designs, and the common tendency among analysts to speculate that any new Chinese weapons systems are somehow ‘copied’ or ‘stolen’ from a foreign source, undermines the credibility of such claims. Although both the HQ-16 and the BuK-M2 provide a medium ranged air defence capability, the two differ significantly in terms of both capability and appearance. The HQ-16 is the only widely deployed medium ranged ground based air defence system in the world to make use of vertical launch cells, a feature the BuK-M2 lacks, which allows the Chinese system to fire from areas of dense cover such as forests and cities. It also allows missiles to be fired at any target within a 360 degree arc, avoiding the often cumbersome process of pointing the launchers in the direction of the target. The HQ-16 can be highly effective against enemy combat aircraft, drones, cruise missiles and short or medium range ballistic missiles, with complementary higher end air defence systems such as the HQ-9 and HQ-22 relied on to engage longer range ballistic missiles at higher altitudes. Also unlike the BuK-M2, the Chinese system makes use of a 6×6 high-mobility truck rather than a tracked chassis, compromising offroad capabilities for ease of maintenance and superior on-road performance. The Chinese medium range system has since been widely deployed to protect military installations and industrial assets on the Chinese mainland – as well as those in neighbouring Pakistan.
The HQ-16 has been developed into four separate variants, of which the HQ-16A was the original and most basic. The HHQ-16 was developed for the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s warships, and is the primary air defence system of the Type 054 Class frigate which is also operated by the navies of Thailand and Pakistan. The HQ-16B variant has an extended engagement range of 70km, where that of the initial platform was limited to just 40km, and has more capable sensors and electronic warfare countermeasures. The HQ-16C is currently in a prototype stage, but is expected to enter service before 2023. All systems are capable of sharing targeting data both with one another and with other compatible systems such as the HQ-9B, allowing them to form key nodes in an air defence network. The platforms benefit from a higher mobility and shorter setup time than the HQ-9, which provides an important boost to survivability.
Each HQ-16 unit consists of two radar units – one L-band passive phased array radar with an 85 km range and one S-band 3-D passive phased array radar with a 140 km range. These radar units between them can detect up to 144 targets and track up to 48 simultaneously. A typical HQ-16 unit is comprised four launch vehicles, each with six launch tubes, a command and control unit, two radar units, and a generator. The HQ-16 is capable of serving as a highly capable complement to long range missile systems such as the S-400 and HQ-9B, and has a very high probability of kill against both combat aircraft and cruise missiles. The pairing of L-band and S-band radars allows the missile system to lock on to stealth targets such as radar evading Storm Shadow cruise missiles at range to perform effective interceptions.
The Pakistani military is currently the only foreign operator of land based HQ-16 systems, although the South Asian state currently lacks an analogue to the HQ-9 which leaves its air defence network entirely reliant on medium and short range systems. With the exception of Russia’s new BuK-M3 and S-350, which has only been manufactured in very small numbers, the HQ-16B is in a league of its own among medium range air defence systems – an advantage which will only increase once the more sophisticated HQ-16C enters service. Another near peer competitor is the South Korean K-SAM, which is based similar technologies to the S-350 and was developed jointly with Russia – but is older and less advanced than the S-350 itself. Russia’s BuK system has so far dominated international markets, in part due to the popularity of the S-300 series of long range systems inclining countries to also purchase their complementary shorter ranged systems from Russia for easier integration. China still does have a number of potential clients for its HQ-16 including Thailand and Iran, which are expected to become leading clients for Chinese military hardware over the next five years, and possibly Myanmar, Ethiopia and Cambodia and Serbia. Sudan was reportedly also in talks to purchase the HQ-16 in late 2018, which would have provided a much needed replacement for its ageing S-75 systems, but a Western backed coup in the country in April the following year ended prospects for such a deal.