Chinese Y-20 Heavy Airlifters Fly to Serbia in Force: Bolster Ageing Air Defences with HQ-22 Missiles

On April 9 reports emerged that Chinese Y-20 heavy airlift jets were making their first flight in significant numbers into Europe, with six of the aircraft heading to Serbia reportedly carrying HQ-22 surface to air missile systems to bolster the air defences of the European country. Serbia remains one of just two countries in Europe outside the western sphere of influence alongside Belarus, and is suspected of having requested its missile systems be delivered faster amid rising tensions on the continent due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War. Serbia remains a close Russian military partner and was long expected to purchase Russian air defence systems such as the S-400, but a number of factors including American sanctions on clients for Russian arms are thought to have led the country to instead favour the more affordable Chinese HQ-22, which is a medium range system with capabilities thought to exceed its Russian equivalents. Chinese and Russian aerial warfare systems remain highly compatible, with several countries including China itself fielding both alongside one another and networking them without issue. Serbia has strongly supported the Russian position against NATO, and previously had a long conflict and was extensively bombed by the Western alliance during the 1990s. 

NATO forces are currently present in Kosovo, which is recognised by the United Nations and Serbia itself as part of Serbia but has been supported by the West in its succession. This was a central cause of conflict in the 1990s, where Serbia relied heavily on ground based at offences to asymmetrically counter Western aircraft and successfully neutralised two F-117 stealth fighters. China is thought to have supported the Serbian war by rerouting its forces' communications through its embassy in Belgrade, which was one factor leading the CIA to launch a bombing mission that destroyed half of the embassy and caused a major international incident. With Serbia’s air defences increasingly obsolete, it has received MiG-29 fighters as aid from both Russia and Belarus paying only for upgrades to bring them up to a modern standard. The HQ-22 will complement these acquisitions, and is one of China’s latest air defence systems with an estimated range of 150-170 km engagement range and the ability to engage targets at altitudes ranging from 50m to 27,000m. It was first unveiled at the Zhuhai Airshow in 2016, entered service the following year in China, and can launch 12 missiles to engage up to six targets simultaneously. The Y-20 aircraft that reportedly delivered the systems entered service in 2016, after its first flight three years prior, and remains the largest military transport aircraft in production anywhere in the world. The aircraft effectively revolutionised China's heavy lift capability, and is expected to see far more missions internationally.

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