Air Defense: China Clones the Tor M1



February 15, 2008: China has apparently cloned another Russian weapon, in this case the Tor-M1 air defense system. The Chinese version is called HQ17. China has earlier bought 30 Tor M1 systems.

The Tor-M1 is known to NATO as the SA-15 Gauntlet. It has a maximum range of 12 kilometers. It is only effective up to 6,000 meters altitude. The system was designed as a successor to the SA-N-8 Gecko. Each launcher carries eight missiles, and it is claimed to be capable of engaging two targets simultaneously. The system was designed to be a tactical battlefield air-defense system, designed to take out close-air-support planes like the A-10 or tactical fighter-bombers like the F-4, F-16, and F-18.

It is thought that China wants such a low altitude system for defense against new Taiwanese cruise missiles. However, cruise missile, which go as fast as 880 kilometers per hour, and comes in at very low altitudes, would be hard for the Tor-M1 to hit. A single Tor would have 49 seconds at most to engage a cruise missile if it detects the missile at its maximum range. That is a pretty big if, as radar performance declines against low-altitude targets. This assumes the missile will hit. If the missile misses (not an unthinkable occurrence in some circumstances), then more have to be fired.

There are vulnerabilities as well. Most Taiwanese combat planes can easily fly at altitudes above 6000 meters. These aircraft would have the option of either attacking the Tor systems themselves (and clearing the road for cruise missiles or combat aircraft to attack the main target), or going for the main target itself.

Tor could also be neutralized by sending in UAVs or target drones on a flight profile similar to that flown by combat aircraft or cruise missiles. This was the technique used in the 1991 Gulf War against the Iraqi air defense system. The Iraqis fired at the drones, revealing the location of the missile batteries and drawing very prompt attention from American Wild Weasels. The Iraqi system was neutralized very quickly.

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