Electronic Weapons: Chinese Fabricated Facts

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December 15, 2020: For several years now, China has been waging a media war against Indian developed weapons. A recent development in that area backfired when Chinese Information Warfare operatives spread the message that Armenia was demanding its money back because the four Indian Swathi artillery spotting radars Armenia purchased in March for $40 million did not work. Those radars were needed in late September when another round of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia began. The fighting was over a 30-year-old territorial dispute that turned out differently because of Turkish military aid for the Azeris, who are fellow Turks as well as Moslem. While some Turkish military personnel are in Azerbaijan, crucial combat capability was provided by Syrian mercenaries. Pakistan also sent some military advisors. This time Azerbaijan won and by early November a ceasefire had been agreed to.

The Chinese disinformation campaign asserted that Armenia had used the Swathi systems, which failed to perform effectively and that Armenia wanted its money back. The reality was that Armenia had only received one of the Swathi systems so far, and it was for training and familiarization and never got near any combat. The fighting took place in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan that Azerbaijan had been fighting (several times) with Armenia since the mid-1990s. This time Azerbaijan actually captured some territory and Turkish and Pakistani assistance was seen as a major factor in that success.

While the Chinese disinformation campaign over the Swathi system was based on false information, the Chinese have managed to capitalize on the poor reputation many Indian developed weapons have that are very real. China has weaponized the corruption and inefficiency of the Indian defense procurement bureaucracy and Indian state-owned defense industries. This is done by reporting more about these Indian problems or, in the case of Swathi, inventing some. These embarrassing facts are no secret; one need only refer to Indian mass media where stories about epic, tragic and expensive problems are a regular feature. Nothing ever seems to change and China is using that to boost Chinese morale and demoralize the Indians.

The Swathi system story did involve some embarrassing aspects. For decades Indian procurement bureaucrats blocked the acquisition of a new artillery spotting radar for Indian troops. The lack of such a system during the brief 1999 Kargil border war with Pakistan caused a lot of Indian casualties and suddenly the procurement officials were no longer an obstacle to importing a modern artillery spotting radar. This effort was crippled at first because India wanted the American AN/TPQ-36 but that sale was blocked by American sanctions on India for admitting it had nuclear weapons in the late 1990s. Pakistan already had some of the AN/TPQ-36 systems and used them successfully in the Kargil war. In 2002 India was free of the sanctions and able to order twelve AN/TPQ-37 systems, which were delivered by 2007. Meanwhile an Indian manufacturer, with government assistance, developed the Swathi system, which was very similar to the AN/TPQ-37. Swathi was tested and accepted by the army in 2008 and 28 were ordered. The first ones were delivered and accepted by the army in 2017. Eventually the army wants to have fifty Swathi systems, which will join the twelve American AN/TPQ-37 systems.

When discussing Indian procurement misdeeds, one of the most frequently mentioned culprits is DRDO (the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization) and several major state-owned defense manufacturers. One the more prominent of these is the state-owned aviation conglomerate HAL and the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB). Shipbuilding, which uses private builders, is a bit better but not much because of the toxic impact of government supervision. Swathi was developed by Bharat Electronics, a state-owned developer and manufacturer of electronic systems. Bharat is one of the more efficient government-owned defense manufacturers and developed the Swathi system so quickly by using many commercially available components and taking advantage of the fact that the American system was basically older tech that worked and had lots of combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, where some problems were encountered and fixed.

Meanwhile the Americans had developed a new generation AN/TPQ-53 system. In 2017 the U.S. Army ordered another hundred of these, after having delayed that order until some problems with the first batch were diagnosed and fixed. Back in 2012 the army finally began replacing its older AN PQ-36/37 FireFinder radar with the new and improved AN/TPQ-53. While the new system was an improvement the army began getting more and more reports from users in combat zones of false positives, as in the radar showing something incoming when there wasn’t anything. There were also problems distinguishing between artillery shells, rockets and mortar shells. The new system did not handle multiple incoming shells well, being unable to provide data on where it was all coming from. The army halted distribution after 38 of the new systems went into service and delayed production of another hundred until the problems could be fixed. A series of tests were conducted in 2015 to document the problems so the manufacturer could fix them. These fixes have been completed and verified by more tests so now manufacturing can continue.

Despite the problems the new system was seen as an improvement. Troops in Afghanistan continued to call the new version "FireFinder" or "counterfire radar" even though the new TPQ-53 is a visibly new and different looking system, each consisting of two trucks, one for the radar the other for the control center and backup generator. For the troops in Afghanistan the TPQ-53 was a success because the most common threat was individual mortar shells being fired at a base. The TPQ-53 was faster and more reliable at dealing with that.

Easier to use and repair, as well as more reliable than its predecessor (the AN/TPQ-36/37), the TPQ-53 could also scan all around (360 degrees), rather than just 90 degrees, and was faster as well. The army wants to buy at least 180 TPQ-53s, for about $9 million each. The older FireFinder is cheaper and still gets the job done. This is why some countries (like Iraq) want it. Many Iraqis have seen the older FireFinder in action. They know it works.

The older FireFinder (AN/TPQ-36/37) radar had to overcome a bad reputation it acquired when it first came to Iraq. That was often for failing to detect incoming mortar fire. These problems that were fixed. FireFinder was developed in the 1970s, based on Vietnam experience with enemy mortar and rocket attacks but didn't get a real combat workout until after September 11, 2001.

Both the old and new FireFinders are radar systems which, when they spot an incoming shell, calculates where it came from and transmits the location to a nearby artillery unit, which then fires on where the mortar is (or was). This process takes 3-4 minutes (or less, for experienced troops). FireFinder worked as advertised but got little use until U.S. troops entered Iraq. After that FireFinder was very effective and heavily used. Too heavily used. There were not a lot of spare parts stockpiled for FireFinder and several hundred million dollars-worth had to be quickly ordered. The manufacturer also introduced some new components that were more reliable and easier to maintain.

At first, the U.S. Army was going to halt further upgrades on FireFinder, which, after all, was developed back in the 1970s, and begin developing the TPQ-53, a new system that can better deal with the kinds of problems encountered in Iraq. But FireFinder had been so useful that new upgrades were pursued anyway, while work continued on the TPQ-53. The upgrades have also been made available to other users of FireFinder, including allies in the Middle East, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. FireFinders are still doing most of the work out there, and TPQ-53 won’t replace a significant number of them until the mod-2020s. Meanwhile India has used Swathi a lot in combat because for several years now Pakistan has regularly been firing mortar and artillery shells across the border in Kashmir. India was able to compare performance of Firefinder and Swathi and teak Swathi until it performed as well as the American system. This was a key element in obtaining the export sale from Armenia.

 


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