Features | Security | East Asia

Russia to Help China Develop an Early Warning System

In October, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow was assisting Beijing in developing an early warning system.

By Dmitry Stefanovich for
Russia to Help China Develop an Early Warning System

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, toasts with Chinese President Xi Jinping prior to the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Friday, June 14, 2019.

Credit: Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

In October 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly announced at the annual Valdai Club gathering in Sochi that Russia is “now helping… Chinese partners create a missile attack warning system.” What can be the end goal and means to achieve it?

What Do We Know?

Importantly, the possibility of cooperation between Russia and China on a missile attack warning system was mentioned earlier this year by Evgeny Buzhinsky, a retired general and a prominent Russian expert in military affairs, at a conference on Russian-Chinese relations hosted by Russian International Affairs Council. The Chinese side had asked for such cooperation for some time, and now, under the ever-growing “strategic partnership,” Russia has finally responded to such requests positively. 

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, stated, that all works will be completed “in due time.”

An early warning system is traditionally based on two layers: Ground with long-range radar stations and space with satellites designed to detect launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Russia achieved full coverage on the ground-based part not long ago, although construction of new stations continue. The situation with regard to the space layer is more complicated, although the third Tundra satellite of the EKS system has been online since September 2019, and the system’s trajectories are designed to provide as permanent coverage of missile-threatening areas as possible.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

China tried to establish its own early warning system back in the 1980s, without great success. Beijing began a new project somewhere in the 2010s. Not a lot is known about space layer plans for the Chinese, although there are some speculations about SJ-11 satellite missions and capabilities.

As of today, according to sources in the Russian defense industry, there is at least one related contract worth around $60 million signed, with Vimpel (“Pennant”) and Kometa (“Comet”), companies of Almaz-Antey, being the main contractors. Support with software development was mentioned as well.

The head of Vimpel, General Director Sergey Boyev, said that they are cooperating with Chinese counterparts on early warning system simulations, but the details would remain confidential because of non-disclosure agreements.

Vimpel has quite an impressive expertise range related to early warning system development and production, as well as broader “air-space defense” issues – including missile defense and counter-space systems. Simulations and testbeds for all elements of the aforementioned capabilities are included in the list of the work Vimpel does.

What Can We Guess? 

Early warning remains one of the domains where Russia (as well as the United States) still has an upper hand over China — although it is true for most offensive and defensive weapons systems considered strategic. This is a result not only of related Russian science and technology fields being relatively superior per se, but also because of an enormous volume of practical experience accumulated in Russia over decades of early warning system operations. One of the most important areas where such experience is crucial relates to possibilities of mistakes and misjudgments by operators and decision-makers. In fact, sharing this experience will contribute to security on a global scale. 

Given the scarce yet critical information known, it appears that at the current stage Russia is helping China define the architecture of its national early warning system – both ground and space layers. It is crucial to have as many reserve sources of information as possible, and the technologies to produce fast and top quality analysis of incoming data and provide decision-making support. 

Both countries have invested heavily in artificial intelligence related technologies. It’s likely that decision-making support systems might be where cooperation may lead to mutual learning and advances. Russia obviously has accumulated enormous amounts of data on global missile and rocket launches, and such datasets are crucial for training of machine-learning algorithms.

Another crucial domain is the training of personnel to operate early warning system – not only in terms of actual day-to-day oversight of sensor data, but also how to deliver it in packages that will be easy to comprehend by decision-makers.

Apart from “consulting” services, Russia is able to provide hardware as well. There are still several domestic construction projects for land-based radar stations ongoing (with new stations planned to come online in 2021, 2022 and 2024 in Vorkuta, Olenegorsk and Sevastopol respectively), and more might be planned for the next decade. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that RTI, the developer of the current generation of radar stations (as well as their predecessors – and even ABM radars), might be interested in export contracts. Moreover, despite the fact that the international market for similar capabilities is not that big, the proliferation of more and more sophisticated missiles might lead to growing interest in related early warning or even defensive capabilities in other countries.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Geography is most important in that regard – at least some of the flight paths for U.S. ICBMs that target facilities on Chinese territory will go over Russian territory, so Russia-based radars might substantially enhance Chinese capabilities. Nevertheless, such a level of cooperation seems to be something possible only in the distant future. 

Post-INF narrative

As the INF Treaty no longer binds anyone, there is a growing possibility of new U.S. INF-range missile deployments. Asia has been cited numerous times as the region where such developments might materialize. Of course, there are still some less escalatory options for the post-INF era, including the deployment moratorium proposed by Russia, but, obviously, some hedging is being done as well. 

It is quite possible that given the differences in geography and perceived threats, Russian help will not result in early warning capabilities similar to the existing systems, but in a Chinese system tailored for regional threats – that, in turn, might become much more interesting for many other possible operators in the world.

Also, the fact that Russia and China already held a “joint computer-based missile defense exercise” several times already might hint at the possibility of a much more capable system being considered. 

Broader Scope

Early warning systems in of themselves are more or less universally agreed to be generally stabilizing – the country in possession of such has more confidence at what is actually happening in the air and space, and probably has more time to decide on retaliatory actions in case a conflict escalates into a “hot” phase. However, it is exactly the opposite with missile defense – the countries deploying these systems, as well as those which feel threatened by such developments, might fall victim to misperception and the military balance gets destabilized.

It is highly probable that both China and Russia will continue to limit the quantitative and qualitative characteristics of strategic defensive systems, as both countries are extremely opposed to U.S. missile defense plans. Nevertheless, some limited systems for protection against possible U.S. INF-range missiles deployments in Asia might be in the works. At the same time, if Russia and China start catching up with the United States in the missile defense domain, a possibility for trilateral or multilateral defense-focused arms control may see an opening – although it is impossible to be sure of anything these days.

Russia and China will not form a military alliance in the foreseeable future, largely because both countries value sovereignty and have different interests in different regions of the world (For example, Russia pursues good relations with most parties involved in South China Sea issues, while China has its own interests in Central and Eastern Europe). However, growing concerns about U.S. policies that might seem threatening to both countries force Moscow and Beijing to increase the level and volume of their cooperation in all domains. The security and military realm is one of the most important areas for this cooperation.

Dmitry Stefanovich is an independent military analyst, Russian International Affairs Council expert and co-founder of Vatfor project.