By David A. Fulghum, Robert Wall
Monday, December 13, 2010
Chinese advisers are believed to be working with Afghan Taliban groups who are now in combat with NATO forces, prompting concerns that China might become the conduit for shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, improved communications and additional small arms to the fundamentalist Muslim fighters.
A British military official contends that Chinese specialists have been seen training Taliban fighters in the use of infrared-guided surface-to-air missiles. This is supported by a May 13, 2008, classified U.S. State Department document released by WikiLeaks telling U.S. officials to confront Chinese officials about missile proliferation.
China is developing knock-offs of Russian-designed man-portable air defense missiles (manpads), including the QW-1 and later series models. The QW-1 Vanguard is an all-aspect, 35-lb. launch tube and missile that is reverse-engineered from the U.S. Stinger and the SA-16 Gimlet (9K310 Igla-1). China obtained SA-16s from Unita rebels in then-Zaire who had captured them from Angolan government forces. The 16g missiles have a slant range of 50,000 ft. The QW-1M is a variant that incorporates even more advanced SA-18 Grouse (9K38 Igla) technology.
So far, there has been a curious absence of manpad attacks on NATO aircraft in Afghanistan. One reason is that the Russian equipment still in place is out of date and effectively no longer usable, the British official says. Another may be that the possession of such a weapon is a status symbol, so owners are reluctant to use it. However, the introduction of new manpads could change that equation.
Although there have been no attacks using manpads, “we act as if they exist,” notes the British officer. “We know they are out there,” he says, alluding to the proliferation of increasingly advanced missiles on the black and gray markets.
In fact, NATO officials know they exist, at least in Iraq, according to the classified U.S. State Department document. U.S. officials were instructed to provide the Chinese government with pictures of QW-1 missiles found in Iraq and ask how such missiles were transferred.
“In April 2008, coalition forces recovered from a cache in Basra, Iraq, at least two Chinese-produced Iranian-supplied QW-1 manpads that we assess were provided by Iran to Iraqi Shia militants. The date of production for the recovered QW-1 systems is 2003, but it is not known when these particular launchers were transferred by China to Iran or when the launchers entered Iraq,” the cable says. “Beijing has typically responded by asserting that its sales are in accordance with international law, that it requires end-users to sign agreements pledging not to retransfer the weapons, or—disingenuously in the judgment of [U.S. government] technical experts—that it cannot confirm that the weapons recovered by coalition forces in Iraq are actually Chinese in origin.”
Talking points in the cable allege that Chinese-origin weapons have been sent to Afghanistan.
“Iran is the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism,” the cable says. “We know that Iran has provided Chinese weapons to extremist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan that are using these weapons to kill Americans and Iraqis, something we take very seriously. Iran is not a responsible purchaser of military equipment. There is an unacceptably high risk that any military equipment sold to Iran, especially weapons like manpads, that are highly sought-after by terrorists, will be diverted to non-state actors who threaten U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Other U.S. officials are less sure about the Chinese missile threat. Army officials told Aviation Week of an unsuccessful, multi-manpad attack against a U.S. helicopter in Iraq last year, but a senior intelligence official expressed doubt that Chinese aid to the Taliban has included weaponry. But he acknowledges that Chinese activities most certainly include intelligence gathering that could be of use in China’s own internal conflicts with its restive Muslim populations. That analysis could project U.S. hopes, whether well-founded or not, that China will not become involved in weapons trade to insurgent groups.
“[China] would not be doing something directly that involves weapons used in the fight against the U.S.,” the U.S. official says. “If they got caught, it would bring down a pall on all their dealings with the U.S.—that they are trying to cultivate—and it would stoke the far right to portray China as the bad guys and raise the flag of the evil PRC.
“There’s also the question of why would they want to alienate the U.S. when it’s doing their work of trying to keep a militant Islamic group from destabilizing Afghanistan,” he says. “There probably are Chinese there among the Taliban. They may even be offering help of some sort, but they are actually there to gather information and knowledge about the Taliban. It’s just good basic intelligence work.”
That kind of Chinese intelligence involvement has surfaced in Kyrgyzstan where U.S. officials say China has an impressive presence. In fact, the WikiLeaks trove of State Department documents reveals a confrontation between the U.S. and Chinese ambassadors in Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. official, Tatiana Gfoeller, asked Zhang Yannian in early 2009 about a covert attempt by China to bribe the Kyrgyz government with $3 billion in cash to close the U.S. military base at Manas, which is a primary logistics center for operations in Afghanistan.
Zhang did not expressly deny the bribe, but said the idea was impossible because China was a staunch opponent of terrorism. He said that China had actually rejected offers from locals to set up a military base to counterbalance Russian and U.S. influence.
“[China] is not concerned about the base in Kyrgyzstan because of [U.S. operations in] Afghanistan but because it is a U.S. presence on the western border of China,” says the U.S. intelligence official. (Kyrgyzstan borders China’s Xinjiang province.)
Other analysts believe that China is playing a deeper game than intelligence gathering and is actually involved in or facilitating international arms proliferation to Iran and other mineral-rich countries in the Middle East and Africa.
This is borne out by yet another leaked cable, posted in mid-2008, that asked U.S. officials to ask several governments to help stop a North Korean flight to Iran. They were told to encourage the nations to deny overflight of the aircraft or “require that it land and be subjected to inspection.”
The flight came to light when the Kyrgyz government denied permission for overflight and notified the U.S. The flight, from Pyongyang to Tehran, was described as a “proliferation concern” and “may be carrying [North Korean] personnel involved in ongoing cooperation with Iran on ballistic missiles” (AW&ST Oct. 18, p. 24).
The aircraft had been scheduled to overfly China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The U.S. also asked that the return flight, three days later, be denied or subjected to inspection.
“Alternatively,” the cable says, “if this aircraft requests a fueling stop in your country, we request that you grant this permission and promptly search the aircraft upon its arrival for evidence of prohibited items or activities.”
Of particular concern was the “transfer of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] components or delivery systems, certain military goods and related materials including spare parts [and] transfers from or to North Korea of technical training, advice, services or assistance related to WMD, their delivery systems and certain conventional arms.”
The U.S. is currently asking the International Atomic Energy Agency to take a closer look at North Korea’s sharing of nuclear technology. It is investigating the transfer of a nuclear reactor to Syria that was destroyed by an Israeli air force strike in early 2007 (AW&ST Oct. 8, 2007, p. 28). Washington is expressing concern about transfers of centrifuges to Iran and Myanmar in the wake of Pyongyang’s recent unveiling of a new uranium enrichment facility and growing suspicion that others remain hidden.
Military leaders of the nations in the Persian Gulf region called for a shared missile defense system to counter the spread of ballistic missiles and to balance the concern that non-state groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas are acquiring more advanced weaponry.
The U.S. has Patriot missiles stationed in a number of countries in the region. The United Arab Emirates is buying its own Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense system to complement a Patriot deployment in 2012. In addition, the UAE and U.S. have created a missile defense training center at Al Bateen AB to parallel the Air Warfare Center at Al Dhafra AB. The relationship between the two bases is expected to expand as anti-missile weapons—such as Raytheon’s Ncade variant of the AIM-120 Amraam—that can be carried by fighter aircraft are fielded.
An interlocking air defense system for the region is crucial because an enemy ballistic or cruise missile may fly through the airspace of several countries to reach its target.