The recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh is being avidly studied in think tanks and military academies over the world for its unusual lessons and the optimisation of disruptive technologies, particularly the success of Azerbaijan’s drones. However, another set of people are quietly studying the conflict even more closely—the global arms industry. Every conflict spurs arms sales. After the overwhelming and quick success of the US-led forces in Gulf War I, there was a long lineup for the latest weapons used in the war. The Saudis wanted F-15 fighters, Apache helicopters, Abrams M1A1 tanks, AWACS radar planes, Patriot missiles, multiple-launch rocket systems, Seahawk helicopters, and Bradley fighting vehicles. The Egyptians wanted Hawk missiles, M-60 tank upgrades, and F-16 fighters, while the Israelis negotiated for portable battlefield-navigation systems, upgrades for the F-15 fighter and the M-109 artillery piece, and more Patriot missiles. A similar interest in the weapon systems, particularly drones, deployed in this conflict is being shown today in cash-rich capitals of many nations.
However, nobody is taking the next flight to Beijing to close an arms deal, though the Chinese have a reputation for being the cheapest in the market. The reason is evident, but hushed. For all their claims of technological prowess, the Chinese systems have failed to deliver. China commenced with large scale sales of drones to many countries as early as 2011. It was a ‘supply shock’, and countries like Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria obtained them. The prices were unbelievably low—both for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). However, the performance of these inexpensive platforms leaves a lot to be desired. The export versions are regularly falling out of the sky. Algeria has reported a series of accidents in the last six years with the Chinese-supplied CH-4 UCAVs. The CH-4 is produced by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. It is one of the Rainbow series of aircraft built by the state-owned corporation. In Algeria, repeated crashes of CH-4 were reported near Tindouf, Bir Rogaa and Ain Oussera airbases.
Jordan had to put on sale Chinese-supplied UAVs after they failed on all parameters. After purchasing with much fanfare in 2016, within three years, the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) had put its Chinese-made six CH-4B UAVs up for sale in June 2019, indicating disappointment with their performance. The RJAF had acquired them in 2016 along with AR-1 laser-guided missiles and FT-9 guided bombs. In June 2020, a Chinese drone crashed in Cambodia, in Koh Kong province’s Kiri Sakor district. It was a Chinese BZK-005, a high altitude UAV used primarily as a long range reconnaissance aircraft, designed by Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics and Harbin Aircraft Industry Company. Within China, their much hyped ‘Predator’ unmanned helicopter developed by Hangzhou Star Low Altitude Helicopter Development Company and hailed as one of the “trailblazers” in the development of China’s drone industry suddenly dived towards the ground and crashed at air show in Hangzhou in October 2020.
The key Chinese system in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict was the WM-80 Multiple Rocket Launcher (MRL), sold to Armenia in 1999 with great promises of devastating fires and annihilation of enemy forces. The MRL system was developed by Norinco, the China Ordnance Industries Group Corporation Limited, on Chinese designed Type 83 273 mm. It has a modular design, with two launcher boxes each containing four ready-to-launch rocket rounds on a TAS-5380 8×8 truck chassis. It failed to make any impact on the opposing Azerbaijan forces. In short, the Chinese weapon platforms have proved undependable even in mildly contested environments, leave aside wars with dense and unpredictable Air Defence environment.
There are numerous reliability and supplies issues with China. China signs agreements for a certain variant of a weapon platform but delivers a lower version with many changes. Often the buyer has no choice but to accept since the requirements are urgent, as in case of Algeria who purchased the lower variant as their border situation was worsening with Libya, Mali and Niger. Pakistan has similar compulsions, not to mention a worsening economy. China is also known to avoid providing spare parts and after sales service. Reports indicate that instead of adhering to the original contract, Chinese middlemen keep putting forth new options for better platforms, and make sales pitch simultaneously to rival factions and groups, particularly in Africa. Maybe the Chinese will improve their weapon platforms in near future, and offer some quality along with quantity. Even without quality, there would always be some buyers from the cash-strapped regions. However, for anywhere else where ethics and human lives matter, no ‘Made in China’ crashing drones and dysfunctional systems in a battlefield.