There was an enervating buzz in the air two weeks ago, when Pakistan commissioned a new Chinese air defence system on 14 October in Karachi. General Qamar Bajwa, the man in charge of Pakistan, attended the induction ceremony. Accompanying footage released by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistani military, showed large wheeled trailer-carriers with missile tubes trundling past a podium.
With that, battle geeks got a new acronym to savour — HIMADS HQ-9P. The Pakistanis got something to crow about. The Chinese got another opportunity to showcase their homegrown technological advancements. Our fifth columnists in mainstream media got to say, again, that this fresh destabilising move was because India refused to hold peace talks with Pakistan.
And somewhere in Delhi, senior staff of the Strategic Forces Command lifted their drinks in the officers’ mess, to a juicy new target on their list.
This Chinese air defence system is a knockoff of the Russian S-300 system, with a purported range of about 100 kilometres (both India and China have ordered the far more advanced S-400 version, with deliveries to India scheduled to be completed by the year end). That puts it in the short-to-medium range class.
The Pakistanis call it HIMADS — an acronym for high to medium air defence system. It is designed to fire surface to air missiles against a variety of incoming bogeys, like planes, missiles (ballistic and cruise) and drones.
Precise details of the system’s architecture and capabilities are obviously not available in the public domain, but here’s what we know:
According to Jane’s Defence, the Pakistani HIMADS HQ-9P has a modular framework which permits integration into the nation’s broader air defence network. The ISPR says that this system will enhance it air defence capabilities. But these are only qualitative statements which convey little.
Specifically, we may expect that a unit of HIMADS consists of a truck-mounted search radar, a mobile tracking radar, and wheeled launchers — each carrying four missiles. In China, the standard configuration of an HQ-9 regiment is eight launchers totalling 32 missiles, plus a generator truck.
Whispers from Turkish trials of the HQ-9, which got blocked by NATO pressure, are that the seeker, or search, radars can probe out to 300 km. This figure tallies with the Chinese unit parked in southern Xinjiang — less than 300 km from Jammu and Kashmir as the crow flies.
However, Jane’s are sceptical. They believe that the seeking radius of the Pakistani variant is more likely just 100 km (which is enough for a unit based in Karachi or West Punjab), and that too only for aircraft.
Also, they doubt if the HIMADS system can track and interdict missiles that far out; they peg the missile engagement radius at only 25 km.
Pakistani daily, The Tribune, added confusion by calling the HIMADS HQ-9P a long range system. The fact that they use the term ‘long range’ in a direct quote from the ISPR, while also defining that range as 100 km, speaks more for poor copy editing than any wily efforts at deception by the owls of Rawalpindi. But they did let slip that Chinese officials were present at the missile system’s induction ceremony in Karachi.
What, then, are the implications of this decidedly significant improvement in Pakistani air defence capabilities?
One, it is clear that they have woken up after the rude shock they received at Balakot on 26 February 2019, when the Indian Air Force managed to enter Pakistani airspace, hit targets, and exit, before Islamabad knew what was happening.
Two, the induction of such a system at Karachi means that Pakistan is seeking to establish some sort of meaningful security over its sole port of worth.
Three, the selection of Karachi as the commissioning point ties in with a broader effort to bolster the image of the Pakistani Navy. Readers would recollect a recent, rather juvenile tweet by their National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf, about spotting and interdicting an Indian submarine from entering their waters.
Four, the induction of a HIMADS unit does add to Indian planning, since it could cause some pain in the early hours of any future conflict. However, and this must be stressed explicitly, the Chinese system does not have any demonstrable capability to shoot down a supersonic cruise missile like the Brahmos (for the simple reason that no air defence system possesses such capability yet) — or even a subsonic cruise missile which wags and wiggles in the vicinity of its target.
Conclusion: this is only one missile battery, in one corner of a long country, with a short to medium range, and no proven ability to stop supersonic cruise missiles. It still leaves a lot of open spaces.
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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