Russia recently completed delivery of 30 T-72B1MS and 30 BRDM wheeled IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) to Serbia, as a peace offering after some major errors in judgement. An initial delivery of 11 T-72B1MS and 10 BRDM was made in late 2020. All sixty vehicles are provided free. This is a $90 million gift to regain Serbia and other East European customers who have been angered by deceptive sales practices that Russia insisted it has halted. This is not just about retaining customers but also trying to deal with increasing Chinese competition.
China has been building Russian military equipment for decades. At first the Russian designs were manufactured under license. By the 1990s China was improving the Russian designs and claiming the new models were Chinese. The problem here was not illegal use of Russian patents but the fact that the Chinese versions were cheaper, and always with better tech support and customer service.
Serbia was an example of how this worked. Before Serbia decided to buy Chinese weapons, they were angered by Russia's deceptive practices when it came to upgrades or fixes to Russian weapons. Serbia got an ugly example of this in 2014 when they needed special batteries to restore thirty Russian made MiG-21 and MiG-29 aircraft. Someone in the Serbian defense procurement department noted that India offered the same batteries, manufactured for Indian built MiGs, and for export, at a third of what the Russians charged. Serbia ordered from India. Russia found out and demanded that Serbia cancel that order or else Russia would withhold MiG parts and maintenance services only Russia could provide. This was not an isolated incident as other East European customers reported similar extortionate Russian tech support practices. Within a year Russia realized the mess they were in and tried to repair the damage by sending the batteries as a gift. That did not have the desired effect because some Russian firms were still using the deceptive and extortionate practices.
Serbia and other East European users of Russian weapons began looking for alternatives. The Chinese were ready to make better offers. In mid-2020 Serbia became the first European customer for Chinese SAM (Surface to Air Missile) air defense systems. Serbia bought three batteries of the FK-3, which is the export version of HQ-22. This is an upgrade of the earlier HQ-12. China began developing the FK-3/HQ-22/12 in the 1980s by copying and improving the Russian SA-2’s they built under license. The SA-2 is 1950s technology that the Russians continued to upgrade as the S-75 and S-200. The SA-2 was superseded in the 1980s by the first S-300 systems. Russia continued offering upgraded SA-2 systems as the S-200, which failed against Israeli airstrikes in Syria but was effective enough for most customers. The FK-3/HQ-22/12 has never been used in combat but on paper is an impressive system with a max range of 170 kilometers and max altitude of 27 kilometers (80,000 feet). An FK-3 battery consists of an AESA radar (range over 300 kilometers), fire control system, four launcher vehicles with two missiles each and 24 missiles plus maintenance equipment.
The FK-3 sale is the latest Chinese success in replacing Russian equipment. Until recently Serbia obtained most of its weapons from Russia, but that relationship has deteriorated. These were a growing number of incidents of poor Russian support of the weapons they exported. This even occurs for equipment purchased for the Russian armed forces. Even with the Russian government able to directly threaten managers of Russian firms providing substandard support to Russian customers, there is no quick or easily implemented fix. China has noticed this and has developed a reputation for providing more prompt, affordable and effective support for equipment similar, or nearly identical to the Russian original, Chinese armored vehicles, aircraft and so on. This has not motivated the Russians to change their ways quickly and because of that China is taking more and more export customers from Russia. Yet China is not totally independent of Russia for some items, like military aircraft engines and a few other military technologies. Year by year China becomes less dependent on Russia and more popular as a supplier than Russia for the same military equipment.
Russia may not have lost Serbia, which still considers Russia a historical ally and protector. But that does not give Russia a license to steal via deceptive sales and support practices. The FK-3 was not the first Chinese sale to Serbia. China had already sold Serbia military equipment that Russia could not provide. In 2019 China delivered nine Wing Loong UAVs. These are similar to the American Predator and are armed with Chinese smart bombs and laser guided missiles. This sale included the option to buy fifteen more UAVs on the same terms. China was quicker than Russia to see the potential in export sales for a Predator clone. Not only was Russia slow to see this opportunity but was unable to match Chinese capabilities in designing and producing similar UAVs. China sold its Predator clones (from two different manufacturers) and similar weapons (smart bombs and laser guided missiles) to anyone who could pay. The Chinese Predators and American Reapers were both used in Iraq during the 2016 battle to drive ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) out of Iraq. The Reapers were supporting the Iraqi Kurds, who had been autonomous since the early 1990s thanks to American support. The Iraqi government bought the Chinese Predators and Iraqi and Kurdish forces noted that both armed UAVs performed effectively. The U.S. noted it as well and began to modify its UAV export policies. It was too late, because China now owns most of the export market for armed UAVs and intends to hold onto and expand that advantage.