A United Arab Emirates air force C-130 detained in Calcutta, India, may have been carrying Harpoon anti-ship missiles, according to The Times of India. While this latest report is unconfirmed, STRATFOR believes another look at the mysterious flight is warranted. If Harpoon missiles have successfully transited Calcutta, it would be a noteworthy development in the ongoing naval competition in the waters of East Asia.
The latest media reports on an anomalous United Arab Emirates air force (UAEAF) C-130 Hercules heading for China suggest the cargo was a small shipment of Harpoon anti-ship missiles. This new detail was published on Sept. 10 by The Times of India, citing defense sources. STRATFOR has yet to confirm the report, and discussion of this particular flight remains rife with speculation. The matter does warrant further examination, though at this point it continues to raise more questions than answers. The UAEAF C-130 in question had been detained since Sept. 6 in Calcutta, at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, following an inspection during a scheduled stopover. The flight was reportedly cleared for departure and left the airport early on Sept. 10 to continue on to China (it was originally scheduled to leave days before). The most important question concerns the inspection in Calcutta. The idea that a clandestine shipment of weapons on a scheduled flight would be intercepted by standard inspection procedures on the ground at a civilian airport seems odd. Most reports suggest that the cargo consisted of three long boxes that could contain anything from spare parts to ordnance. Even if a local inspector became suspicious, a small bribe would not have been out of the question in this part of the world. Instead, reports suggest that the crew was interrogated until one pilot admitted there were weapons aboard. This suggests that the inspection had been directed by higher Indian authorities and that there may have been some sort of tip-off. Did someone — perhaps U.S. intelligence officials — catch wind of the shipment and attempt to block it? Was someone able to alter or remove the cargo while the C-130 sat on the ground for nearly a week? Another key question concerns the cargo itself. The latest report that the cargo consisted of three U.S.-made AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles is, on its face, plausible. Both the UAE and Egypt (another rumored source of the shipment) have Harpoons. Indeed, from 2004 to 2005, both Abu Dhabi and Cairo acquired late-model Block 2 variants of the missile (12 missiles for the UAE and 53 for Egypt). Export variants are generally upgraded Block 1C missiles but include improved inertial and GPS guidance systems. The UAE missiles (but not Egypt's) reportedly have additional land-attack capabilities. The Harpoon has been widely proliferated since it was first fielded in 1977. It would be surprising if China had not gotten its hands on one already. But if the missiles in question actually were the newer Block 2 variant, and if they have made it through Calcutta unaltered and intact, it would indeed be noteworthy. Beijing would have a particular interest in the late-model Harpoon, which not only is the U.S. Navy's principal anti-ship weapon but also that of China's three regional naval concerns: Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. As STRATFOR has already noted, the flight is suspicious in part because one of its rumored destinations was Xianyang International Airport in Xian, China, a key hub for Chinese aviation and avionics development. (Once in China, of course, the C-130's cargo could be transferred to anywhere in the country.) China would find value in dissecting such missiles from both an offensive and defensive perspective. Even if Beijing were not able to obtain the land-attack variant, the modern Harpoon is still considered among the best anti-ship missiles in the world. China already fields missiles in this class, so its engineers could use what they learn not only to design new guidance systems but also to alter existing missiles currently fielded. Obviously, land-attack guidance would be useful for improving China's own cruise-missile programs as well, with the potential for improving its capability to threaten U.S., Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese and other ships in the South China Sea as well as Taiwan itself. Should the latest media report prove true (and STRATFOR has no information at present that it is), and if Harpoon missiles have transited Calcutta unmolested, China could soon have its hands on copies of the Harpoon that are either virtually identical or very similar to some of the late-model Harpoons currently deployed aboard the warships of all of its major naval competitors. These are, in other words, the Harpoons that would be fired at Chinese ships in a naval confrontation. So the most important thing China could learn from them might well be the means to improve its own shipboard defensive weapons and countermeasures. This is not to suggest that China could suddenly make vast strides in its offensive missile capability or make itself impervious to U.S. weaponry — not in the least. But it would certainly be a noteworthy development in the region's ongoing naval competition.