Serbia has become 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, which is an upgraded HQ-12. China began developing this system in the 1980s, copying and improving the Russian SA-2’s they built under license. Egypt and Iran also built their own copies of the SA-2, which was 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 The SA-2 was superseded in the 1980s by the first S-300 systems.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 was unsuccessfully against Israeli airstrikes. The FK-3/HQ-12/22 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). A Russian SA-2 brought down an American U-2 in 1960 and many American warplanes during the Vietnam War. 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. 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.
China has already sold Serbia military equipment that Russia cannot 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.
Russia tried to recover from recent incidents of poor service and support. Mindful of the ill will generated by all these maintenance and support disasters Russia gave the Serbs 60 used armored vehicles (30 T-72 tanks and 30 BRDM-2 wheeled reconnaissance vehicles). Many Serbs withheld their thanks until Russia actually delivered. Similar situations regularly occur elsewhere in the Balkans. For example, in October 2017 Bulgarian pilots refused to fly their MiG-29s because of safety issues. India has had similar problems and, in some cases, especially since 1991, some buyers demand, and got, a “money back if not satisfied” clause in the purchase contract. That clause has been exercised a few times, often in the case of MiG-29s. In early 2018 Russia made another peace offering; providing $2.5 million to pay for MiG-29 flight training. Serbia thanked Russia but has not forgotten. Russia was reminded of that when Serbia ordered the Fk-3 batteries from China.