As Western countries pledge tens of billions of dollars worth of new weapons to support Ukraine’s war effort and its plans to capture Russian held territories, U.S. and particularly European sources have claimed that the Russian Military could receive support from China in the form of transfers of lethal weapons. While it has been speculated that drones and ammunition in particular could be in high demand, the wide range of armaments China could potentially provide, from guided rocket artillery to air to surface missiles, could transform the balance of power in the theatre – albeit at the great risk to China of its weapons systems being captured and studied by Ukraine and its Western backers. Such speculation, however, is at odds with Beijing’s strictly neutral positioning in the Russian-Ukrainian War, which is in line with the positions of large majority of non-Western countries. Only Japan, Singapore and South Korea having joined the West in sanctioning Russia, while only North Korea, Belarus and Iran have materially supported Moscow. Should China decide to provide armaments, unlikely as this possibility currently appears, one of the weapons with the highest impacts it could provide is significantly lower profile than artillery, attack drones or cruise missiles – namely its HJ-12 anti tank missile system.
Developed by China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) and beginning production in 2014, the HJ-12 has gained one export contract so far to equip the Algerian Army, and is widely considered the most capable missile system of its kind in the world competing with the American Javelin and French MMP systems for the title. The Russian Army has gained extensive experience fighting against units armed with Javelin missiles, and even issued guides on how to use them to its personnel after large quantities were captured from Ukrainian forces. Ukraine is by many estimates the largest operator of the Javelin in the world, and like the HJ-12 its soft launch systems allows it to be fired from within buildings with fire and forget capabilities and the ability to lock on to targets before launching. This allows operators to immediately take cover after firing, and gives them time to reload to engage a second target. Should the Russian Army seek to acquire more Javelin-type missies after deploying those captured from Ukraine, the HJ-12 would be its most formidable option.
The need for anti tank missiles is particularly critical for Russia as Ukraine is set to field one of the largest armoured forces in the world – a threat Russia appears to have already responded to with unprecedented deployments of its latest anti armour rounds for its tank guns to the frontlines. Ukraine already fielded the largest tank force in Europe at well over 800 vehicles before the outbreak of the war in February 2022, and has since pulled several hundred more tanks out of storage while receiving hundreds more from across the Western world. Western armour transfers have not only helped facilitate a growth of the T-72 fleet to several times their original numbers, but also supplied new tank classes most notably the British Challenger 2, German Leopard 1 and Leopard 2 and the American M1A2 Abrams. Although Russia has significantly increased the scale on which it has produced its T-90M battle tanks, which are considered capable of going head to head with the newest Western tanks Ukraine fields, growing numbers of units appear to be using legacy Cold War era vehicles such as T-72As and T-62Ms. Thus a top end anti tank guided missile like the HJ-12 could provide an important asymmetric means of tackling more advanced armoured units.
The HJ-12 is optimised for penetrating explosive reactive armour, retains a very long optimal firing range of 4km, and can engage less well armoured targets at even longer ranges at the expense of precision and penetrative power. The missile system combines highly sophisticated capabilities with a very light weight of just 22kg, allowing ground forces to remain highly mobile. The missiles themselves are highly manoeuvrable and are designed to impact enemy vehicles from the top where armour is weaker – much as the Javelin does. The missile system represents to culmination of decades of development of advanced anti tank missiles in China, and is very significantly more capable than its Russian equivalent the Kornet. The HJ-12’s ability to be concealed within infantry formations could well transform the battle space and seriously limit Ukraine’s ambitious to launch armoured assaults into the Russian held Donbas and the Crimean Peninsula.