Back in February I blogged about the ongoing delays surrounding the delivery of Russia’s S-300 PMU-1 air defense system to Iran. At the time, Russia cited technical problems as being the cause of the delay whilst simultaneously promising Tehran that they would still honor the sale. But according to a new story from Russian media outlet RIA Novosti, it seems that the Iranians are still no closer to getting their hands on the advanced air defense system. This time the delay has been explained as being caused by ongoing ‘talks’, again with the Russian caveat that ‘contracts have been signed, and they are being implemented’.
Since the S-300 contract was signed in December 2005, it would seem that the only talks that could be delaying delivery are those not involving the Iranians. As Richard Weitz recently pointed out, in light of the ongoing nuclear impasse, its likely that Israel and the U.S are exerting significant diplomatic pressure on Moscow to delay delivery for as long as possible. Iran’s hope that ‘Russian officials [are not] swayed by political pressure from other countries’ reflects their frustration at what appears to be the continuing success of Israeli and American efforts. But as Weitz suggests, these efforts ‘will matter little if China chooses to sell them its HQ-9 surface-to-air missile, which is characterized as “a not-so-bad Russian S-300 for less money.”’ Which is where things get interesting…
Just three days ago it was reported that Russia had shipped China 15 batteries of the S-300 missile defense system. According to a Russian language source (translated using Babelfish) these missiles were of the advanced PMU-2 variant, and were ordered in August 2007. This Interfaks source suggests the Chinese ordered 15 battalions, not the 15 batteries reported by RIA Novosti, which would be a far larger order.
China’s purchase of the S-300 system is nothing new, having ordered an initial batch of the PMU-1 variant back in 1992. However, following substantial orders in the early 90s, Russia gave China clearance to begin manufacturing their own clone of the S-300 PMU1 in 1995, which Beijing called the Hongqi-10 (HQ-10). China then built upon this technology and since 2002, has been producing its very own longer-range modification – the HQ-15. But given that the HQ-15s 200 km extended range now matches that of the S-300 PMU2, why did China feel the need to order 15 battalions / batteries from Russia in 2007?
One explanation could be that despite its similar range, the HQ-15 might not yet be on par with the PMU-2 system in other technical areas. As such, the Chinese may have invested in the PMU-2’s in order to reverse engineer them, with the aim of refining their own HQ-15 technology. But given the already close nature of the two systems, might it not have made more sense and been cheaper for the Chinese to simply invest in one or two ‘evaluation’ systems to work from, instead of the reported fifteen batteries / battalions? Perhaps, but given China’s ample fiscal resources it’s also possible that they sought to field a large network of PMU-2s as soon as possible, supplementing them with refined HQ-15’s as and when possible.
If this theory is true, and assuming these PMU-2s are designed to replace older (but still relatively modern) surface to air missile systems such as the HQ-9 / HQ-10 or Russian made S-300 PMU-1s, it’s possible that China may now have fifteen spare air defense systems. Keeping in mind that Iran only ordered five systems from Russia, and that Tehran has recently alluded to the possibility of buying alternatives from the Chinese, Beijing’s spare capacity could serve as the basis of a China-Iran deal if and when it were to come up.
Alternatively, although far less likely, is that China ordered some of these PMU-2s directly on behalf of Iran, and may transfer them either overtly or clandestinely at a future date.
Even if neither of these theories is true, the bottom line is that the quick order-to-delivery time of China’s PMU-2’s illustrates that Russia can and will sell its defense systems promptly if it wishes. Which is why Iran’s frustration with Russia is likely only growing.