Missile technology: reverse-engineering and updating a classic


I was intrigued to read about a new Chinese anti-tank missile.  It reminded me of South Africa’s entry into that field in the 1980’s.

China recently revealed a new ATGM (anti-tank guided missile) which appears larger than earlier ones and uses top-attack warhead technology. It was later reported that [an earlier] version of this new missile had been revealed, called the ATF-11, and better photos were provided. It appears that the larger vehicle mounted missile and the new portable version are the same and are in fact a laser guided version of the American TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided). The ATF-11 was is not the first Chinese missile to use top-attack tech. That showed up in the 1980s when they introduced the HJ-8, which is nearly identical to the American TOW 2 in size, weight, range and, according to the users, performance. The ATF-11 appears to be a laser guided version of the HJ-8. There were American and Israeli laser-guided (wireless) TOW missiles but they never seemed to be worth putting into service.

. . .

The new Chinese missile was not named, but was shown mounted in a multiple cell launcher on an armored vehicle. No performance details were given but it is similar in size to TOW, and presumably capable and probably using “fire and forget” tech as well as an advanced target seekers.

China has been producing copies of Western designs for decades.

There’s more at the link.

South Africa was also involved in modifying the US TOW design to produce its own anti-tank missile.  It was a long and complicated story, but briefly, its arms industry bought missile technology from Israel, including that country’s not-very-successful laser-guided adaptation of the US missile, and proceeded to make it work.  The result was the ZT3 Ingwe missile, the world’s first production laser-guided anti-tank missile.  It was used in combat in 1987 against Soviet-built tanks in Angola, with considerable success.  South Africa built on that foundation for its subsequent Mokopa missile (a clone of the US Hellfire weapon).

China has done the same thing, first with its HJ-8, then with the ATF-11, and now with its new missile.  Similar copycat technology is visible in missile systems of many other nations.  Once the “technology cat” is out of the bag, it’s very hard to prevent other countries from getting examples of a new weapon, by hook or by crook (usually a lot of crookery), and reverse-engineering them.

That’s how Russia got its Vympel K-13 short-range air-to-air missile in the 1960’s, reverse-engineering the US AIM-9B Sidewinder, which was obtained when at least one Sidewinder fired by Taiwanese fighters stuck in the fuselage of a Chinese MiG fighter without exploding, and was recovered intact.  The K-13 was so exact a copy that Russian and US missiles could be loaded and fired from the same rails on Western fighter aircraft, using the same avionics and software.  Later versions were upgraded using information obtained via espionage.  Here’s an interesting short documentary on the Soviet achievement.

South Africa bought a hundred AIM-9B’s in the 1960’s to equip its Canadair Sabre Mk. 6 fighters.  It also reverse-engineered the AIM-9B, producing the “Voorslag” demonstrator missile, which went on to blend local ingenuity and French technology to evolve into the V3A and V3B Kukri missiles, and later the V3C Darter.


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