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Monday, April 16, 2007

Fears That New Chinese Warhead Could Seep into Iraq

By John C.k. Daly
Two months ago, Chinese arms company Xinshidai (New Era) displayed its latest weapons products at the International Defense Exhibition arms show in Abu Dhabi, seeking to establish its own niche in the world's lucrative arms market. Xinshidai is a conglomerate of several Chinese state-run armament manufacturing enterprises. Given Xinshidai's interest in expanding its presence in the Middle Eastern market and its ties to Iran, the possibility exists that weaponry sold to the region could "bleed" into Iraq. Xinshidai's prior record of flouting international regulations on arms trafficking makes it unlikely that the company would insist on tight export controls. Especially worrying is that the company has reportedly developed a thermo-baric fuel air explosive warhead for the RPG-7 handheld anti-tank grenade launcher; the warhead is known as the WPF 2004.

Xinshidai's new shoulder-fired warhead weighs seven pounds and has a reported accuracy range of 650 feet (International Defense Review, March 16). The new missile warheads would allow users an increased capability not only against buildings, but also against forces deployed in bunkers or underground facilities. The warhead's explosive potential is far greater than a conventional round and could collapse a multi-story building while killing all inside. Since the Middle East is now China's fourth largest trading partner, and given Xinshidai's past role in illicit arms sales, it is possible that the new weaponry will eventually emerge in Iraq and be used against U.S. forces. Indeed, in September 2004, the U.S. Federal Register announced that Xinshidai was to be subjected to two years of U.S. sanctions for illicit sales of missiles and related goods to Iran.

The Russian-made RPG-7 is the most widely used RPG in the world and is a favorite among insurgents. Adding the WPF 2004 warhead to the RPG-7 would pose an even greater threat to counter-insurgent forces. In 1993, for example, RPG-7s downed the U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu during Operation Restore Hope. In Iraq, guerrillas regularly use the RPG-7; according to an April 1 report in Mafkarat al-Islam, Iraqi guerrillas launched an attack with RPG-7s in al-Hasy, just south of Fallujah, and allegedly killed four Iraqi soldiers. Moreover, Turkey just recently uncovered an arms cache belonging to the PKK that was well-stocked with RPG-7s, believed to have been brought into southeastern Turkey through northern Iraq (Today's Zaman, April 5). Given their relative inexpensiveness and availability, RPG-7s modified with the WPF 2004 warhead could give Iraqi insurgents a significant new cost-effective element in their arsenal of weapons to combat coalition forces.

While it is too early to tell, a previously sanctioned Chinese armaments company seeking to expand its market share in the Middle East with longstanding trade ties to Iran, combined with porous Iraqi borders, leads to the unsettling conclusion that it is perhaps only a matter of time before such inexpensive and potent weapons enter the insurgents' arsenal.
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