The HHQ-9 naval surface to air missile (SAM) is the primary air defence weapon aboard the 052C class DDG, and is likely to be present aboard the improved 052D class DDG, as well as the future 055 class large DDG.
Therefore, HHQ-9 can be considered to be the Chinese Navy’s mainstay long range anti air and anti missile SAM system.
However, considerable ambiguities regarding the capability and the nature of the HHQ-9 still remain, due to a lack of official information regarding the HHQ-9. The capabilities of HHQ-9 are sometimes further confused with that of the land based HQ-9 SAM (from which HHQ-9 is derived) and the export variant FD-2000, but there is reason to believe the naval HHQ-9 may feature some substantial differences to the land based HQ-9 and export FD-2000.
The HHQ-9’s range is a subject of some debate. It should be prefaced that the effective range of any type of missile is dependent on the target it is assigned to engage – a naval SAM or a beyond visual range air to air missile would have a substantially higher effective range against a high flying, low speed target such as a maritime patrol aircraft, compared to an incoming supersonic cruise missile at low altitude. Therefore, following discussion of HHQ-9’s range is done so in this context, and is assumed to be maximum slant range against a high flying aerial target.
The range for HHQ-9 has been cited between 100 to 120 kilometers; in a report by the US Office of Naval Intelligence, HHQ-9 has been cited as having a range of 55 nautical miles or slightly over 100 kilometers, but the export variant FD-2000 is said to have a range of 120 kilometers, and various Chinese language sources including state media (CCTV) have reported 052C to be equipped with a SAM whose range exceeds 150 kilometers.
Additional confusion exists, one when considers that initial HHQ-9 variants may have been superseded by improved capability HHQ-9 variants with longer range, therefore it is difficult to ascertain just which variant of HHQ-9 may be present aboard current ship classes.
However, taking this array of differing information into consideration, it is possible to judge that the maximum effective range of current variant HHQ-9 is likely to be between 100 kilometers and 150 kilometers.
Ambiguity surrounding HHQ-9’s minimum altitude has received less coverage than that of its maximum range, but it is potentially as equally important.
The minimum altitude of a SAM would very much determine its ability to destroy low flying targets such as sea skimming cruise missiles, especially during the terminal phase.
HHQ-9’s minimum altitude has been cited to be anywhere from 500 meters to 25 meters. The 500 meter altitude has been associated to past brochures for the land based HQ-9, however it is unlikely that the land based HQ-9 would have such a poor minimum altitude given it is insufficient to intercept even relatively low flying aircraft, therefore the 500 meter minimum altitude is likely to be an incorrect number. The 25 meter minimum altitude is cited for the export variant FD-2000, and while it is far more realistic for a land based SAM, it still appears excessively high to effectively intercept sea skimming cruise missiles whose terminal altitude may be as low as five to ten meters above sea level. On the other hand it is notable that the naval HHQ-9 likely features the same 180 kilogram fragmenting warhead as HQ-9 and FD-2000, which may feature a blast radius large enough to compensate for an insufficiently low minimum altitude and thus retain the capability to kill a sea skimming target.
But despite all the above, there is reason to question whether the naval HHQ-9 may have a minimum altitude even lower than 25 meters, as land variants and naval variants of the same SAM may feature differing minimum altitudes, possibly due to the nature of more alternating terrain for a land based SAM which may produce greater clutter when trying to track a low flying target, as well as vertical features such as trees or buildings which may further limit the minimum range of a SAM (but also any incoming missile).
For instance, the European SAMP/T long range land based SAM is a variant of the naval Aster 30 long range SAM. SAMP/T is cited by MBDA with a minimum altitude of 50 meters, however Aster 30 is well known to be capable of intercepting sea skimming targets at lower altitudes as well.
Therefore, the minimum altitude of HHQ-9 is likely to be sufficient for intercepting sea skimming targets, and directly assuming HHQ-9 features the same effective range of its land based counterparts may be a significant error in logic.
Indeed, given the role of HHQ-9 as the Chinese Navy’s primary long range naval SAM, it would be quite a limitation if it were incapable of intercepting low altitude sea skimming missiles.
HHQ-9’s guidance is another point of contention which has significant consequences regarding the capability of the missile.
Semi active radar homing (SARH) missiles rely on an external source to illuminate a target, whereupon a seeker on the missile homes onto the reflected beam. For modern surface to air and air to air missiles (among other types), this illumination is typically necessary only during the terminal phase of engagement. For naval SAMs, this external illumination is usually provided by a fire control radar aboard a ship operating in the X band.
Active radar homing (ARH) missiles however, feature a radar onboard the missile itself so that it can “self guide” itself during the terminal phase of engagement, and thus are sometimes described as “fire and forget”. This name is not entirely strictly true, because a missile equipped with ARH still has to rely on midcourse guidance provided by a ship or an aircraft via datalink, prior to the terminal phase.
However, one meaningful difference between SARH and ARH SAMs, is that SARH SAM equipped ships with older mechanically oriented fire control radar illuminators may not be capable of engaging as many targets simultaneously as a ship with ARH SAMs, due to the necessity of time sharing its illuminators during the terminal phase. A ship equipped with ARH SAMs on the other hand, do not require any support from the ship itself during the terminal phase. One method to increase the number of simultaneous engagements for SARH SAMs is by employing an X band active phased array radar, which can generate a substantially larger number of beams for terminal illumination at once compared to traditional single beam mechanically oriented illuminators.
In the case of HHQ-9, it is generally accepted that it is guided by ARH rather than SARH. Arguments that HHQ-9 may use older SARH guidance may have arisen due to rumours of the land based HQ-9 using Russian derived seekers with Track Via Missile type guidance, however this has never been substantiated by documents from the manufacturer. More importantly, the export variant FD-2000 itself features ARH guidance, therefore it is unlikely for the Chinese to be willing to export a missile variant with more capable guidance than what itself is fielding.
Additional evidence which indicates the HHQ-9 fields ARH guidance, is the very visible lack of terminal illuminators aboard the 052C class DDG (as well as the 052D DDG, which is almost certainly equipped with an HHQ-9 variant as well). The 052C class DDG is equipped with the S band Type 346 active phased array radar. S band radars are insufficient to provide terminal guidance, which is usually provided by X band radars, but are sufficient for providing midcourse guidance data. Therefore, unless the Type 346 radar is actually an X band radar (which is an immensely unlikely prospect), then the only viable guidance solution remaining, is for HHQ-9 to be an ARH missile.
The HHQ-9 missile will likely remain the mainstay long range SAM for the Chinese Navy, and will likely feature substantial upgrades to enhance its capability in the same way that the US Navy has continuously upgraded its Standard Missile family.
Indeed, it has been suggested that an HHQ-9A variant with extended range that may already be in service. An HHQ-9B variant with additional imaging infrared seeker may also have been in development or be in development.