Burak Bekdil, Turkey’s defense corespondent for Hurriyet Daily News and Jane’s Defence Weekly, reports that Turkey is “is strongly leaning toward adopting a Chinese long-range anti-missile and air defense system.” The HQ-9 missile system is reportedly based on and has similar capabilities to early versions of Russia’s S-300 system.
The system is highly mobile and is designed for a “hide, shoot and scoot” style operations and is reported to have the capability to track and engage aircraft, ballistic missiles, and low-and-slow flying cruise missiles. The technical data suggests that the interceptor is designed to engage ballistic missiles upon atmospheric re-entry, similar to the United States’ Patriot. In addition, Chinese officials claims that the system has the capability to detect and destroy low-radar-cross section threats like cruise missiles.
While the HQ-9’s reported capabilities may comfort some in Ankara worried about the dual threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic and cruise missile technology in the region, the track-record for more advanced missile defense systems against such targets is mixed, at best. For example, the American Patriot, which has had the benefit of real operational testing in numerous conflicts (Gulf War I, Gulf War II, Israel), performed well against Iraq’s ballistic missile during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Patriot destroyed all 9 of Iraq’s slow flying ballistic missiles that it chose to engage during the conflict. However, the system failed to track and engage Iraq’s crude – and I want to underscore crude – cruise missiles, as well as ultra-light aircraft. (For reference, both systems are, in theory, capable of delivering chemical weapons in a far more efficient manner than ballistic missiles.) Moreover, the system had a series of friendly fire incidents that resulted in the death of coalition aircraft pilots.
Absent real operation testing, it is unlikely that the HQ-9 will fair much better against cruise missiles. The low and slow flying targets have a low-radar cross section and modern radars – absent expensive upgrades – remain limited by the curvature of the earth. (For reference, the United States has cancelled its upgrade program for the Patriot to deal with cruise missiles and I doubt China has such a system). Thus, missile defenses are far more capable of engaging targets with a higher angle of attack like ballistic missiles. However, as missile defenses proliferate, more and more states are turning to cruise missiles to defeat more capable defenses. (Iran, for example, has invested in cruise missiles development.)
For a state reliant on ballistic missiles, engineers could also opt to outfits missiles with decoys to confuse the interceptor. For example, during mid-course flight – i.e. – when the missile is traveling through the vacuum of space – a relatively advanced state like Iran could outfit its missiles with balloons and pieces of chaff to confuse the ground based radar and interceptor homing device. The debris, while moving in the vacuum of space, would move at the same speed as the incoming warhead, which, in turn, would confuse the ground based radar and homing device on the interceptor.
The HQ-9, however, is not designed for the mid-course intercept of ballistic missiles. Instead, like the Patriot, it is expected to engage the incoming target upon atmospheric re-entry. A relatively advanced state – again, think Iran – could also outfit its missiles with countermeasures to confuse lower altitude interceptors. Moreover, for a scud based threat, which does not involve the separation of the warhead from the missile while in flight, the potential break up of the rocket body during powered flight has a history of confusing Patriot. While the Patriot’s interceptor and radar have since been upgraded, the HQ-9 does not have the benefit of having been tested during real battle field conditions.
Moreover, the system cannot be integrated with Turkey’s NATO provided early warning radar network. Thus, Turkey will not be able to link the HQ-9 with NATO’s planned alliance wide missile defense shield. In theory, the Alliance will rely on the SM-3 missile interceptor, deployed both at sea and on land, for defense against the regional ballistic missile threat. The system is built around the SM-3 interceptor, which will be gradually upgraded – i.e. – the interceptor will get faster and its guidance more accurate. The SM-3 is designed for mid-course defense – intercepts in the vacuum of space – and is to be augmented by ground based systems like Patriot and THAAD.
Thus, NATO would, in theory, have a layered missile defense system capable of firing multiple interceptors at incoming missiles to ensure that the target is destroyed. The system relies on a slew of American deployed ground based radars (the radar in Malatya, Turkey is one), space based sensors, and early warning satellites. Turkey, should it have chosen Patriot, would have likely been able to incorporate its indigenous missile defense system into this burgeoning network for its own defense. While Turkey will still benefit from the Alliance missile shield, it will not have low-altitude interceptors linked to NATO’s early warning system.
Ankara appears to have made the decision to build its own system – including the space based sensors and early warning satellites. The HQ-9, therefore, would compliment these ambitious plans. To be sure, Turkey will not be able to realize these plans before the 2023 centennial (To be honest, I don’t think Turkey will ever fully realize its space ambitions. For space nerds out there, I would view Turkey’s SLV plan as part of its space ambitions.) Turkey, therefore, will still be reliant on the NATO system for its ultimate protection, which raises questions about the decision to choose a system that is not interoperable with NATO technology.
The decision, therefore, does not appear to have been driven by military necessity and prudent policy-making. While Turkey certainly needs to upgrade its air defenses, economic prudence, as well as serious military planning, suggests that Ankara should have chosen the United States’ Patriot or Europe’s Aster-30 SAMP/T. Both systems are capable of integration into NATO’s early warning architecture and could be linked to the AEGIS SM-3 based NATO missile shield. However, in the case of the United States, the manufacturer was reportedly unwilling to meet Turkey’s very – and I want underscore the word very – demanding offset demands.
I suspect – and again, the agreement with China has not been signed yet – that the Chinese will agree to a co-production arrangement for the missile and will invest in a production facility for the system inside of Turkey. In 1985, Turkey passed Law No. 3238, which sought to build up Turkey’s domestic arms industry through a policy of offsets for military procurements. The legislation governing military procurement has since been updated, but the current policy prefers the local development of defense items. If the task is too great for Turkish defense firms, Ankara prefers co-development agreements, or, if that proves to be impossible, SSM prefers co-production/co-licensing agreements.
The AKP has made it a priority to emphasize the development of Turkey’s domestic arms industry. The Party’s leadership has used the program as a symbol of Turkey’s development, even though most of the projects are produced using foreign offsets. For example, Turkey’s domestic tank relies on a co-production deal with South Korea’s Hyundai and its attack helicopter is a co-production agreement with Agusta-Westland. Turkey’s policy is not unique ( 130 countries have similar policies), though the attention given to the issue by the Prime Minister indicates that the idea of a strong domestic defense industry polls well with AKP voters.