By Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
15 November 2007
Though China constantly reiterates that its rise will be peaceful, Beijing’s actions on the ground suggest a different message. Several US and Russian analysts believe that China’s reorganisation of missile facilities in Delingha in July 2007 have repercussions for India, Russia, and may be some of the Central Asian states too.
According to Hans Kristensen, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, China has been busy reorganising its missile facilities near Delingha in the northern parts of central China. This site is believed to be one of China’s missile bases. Based on commercial satellite images available from Google Earth, Kristensen states that the images reveal that the previously used liquid-fuelled missiles deployed in this region have been replaced with newer solid-fuelled missiles.
According to his analysis, the launch sites for the older Dong Feng-4 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) underwent upgradation to fit them for the new DF-21 medium-range ballistic missiles. The DF-21 missiles have a range of approximately 1,330 miles (2,150 kilometres) and are capable of carrying a single warhead with a yield of 200 to 300 kilotons. It is believed that two versions of this missile are deployed and some could have been modified to carry conventional warhead. Kristensen points out that the latest US government’s annual report on China’s military power reported that the China might have 40-50 such missiles on 34-38 launchers, whereas the 2006 report put the number of these missiles at 19-50 on 34-38 launchers.
The DF-21 launch sites, at a height of 10,000 feet (3,000 metres), are located on the slopes of mountain range north of Delingha. Kristensen noted that these sites have been witnessing significant changes between late 2005 and late 2006. In late 2006, the southern site that used to be large missiles garage, with about 40 small buildings and more than half a dozen service trucks, underwent major change, with a single service truck visible on the launch pad and the access road that appeared to have been paved. The second launch site to the north also underwent major change and the operations too appear to have increased in the last year or so. Third, the northern primary launch site too has been upgraded between late 2005 and late 2006. Significant expansion took place with numerous buildings constructed, access roads paved and there is work in progress next to the underground facility. More significantly, there appears to be six 13-metre trucks on the launch pad. Although the satellite images were not a high resolution, Kristensen concluded that they are in all probability the six-axle transport erector launchers (TELs) in use with the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile. He also noted a vague line across the trailer two-thirds toward the rear that resembled the position of the hydraulic pumps used to erect the missile canister to a vertical position.
Other analysts suggested that there is also the possibility that these missiles could be of a longer range DF-31 or the advanced version DF-31A, which has a range of approximately 12,000 km. This multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) has a capability to hold 3 warheads each capable of a 20-150 kiloton yield. These are also possibly equipped with penetration aids such as decoys and flares to complicate warning and missile defence efforts. These missiles that went through performance tests in 2003 and 2004, is expected to have initial operational capability by 2007. Both the DF-31s and DF-31As are road mobile and use solid propellant engines. Media reports quoting intelligence sources reported the presence of a Belarus MAZ7916 12-wheel mobile missile TEL at the DF-31 production facility in Nanyuan, Beijing in the 1990s. These are supposed to have better cross-country traveling capability than the current Hanyang TEL truck used by the DF-31.
The significance of this reorganisation is that placing medium-range ballistic missiles (which can hit target approximately 2500 kilometers away) in the site can put the entire northern India at risk, including New Delhi. The more serious consequence arises from the fact these are mobile platforms, which means these missiles can be launched from further down south at closer ranges targeting almost all of India. Interestingly, Kristensen points out that these medium-range ballistic missiles are also within the range of three main Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) sites on the other side of Mongolia – the SS-25 fields near Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, the SS-18 field near Uzhur and a Backfire bomber base in Belaya. However, it is very clear that the Chinese have not carried out the reorganisation to present a counterforce threat to Russian missile silos.
One also wonders about the logic behind such reorganisation. One may argue that the recent reorganisation was more of a routine nature. Also, as Kristensen points out, most of China’s ballistic missiles are mobile and the support units are devised in such a way to follow the launchers wherever they are transported to. The replacement of liquid-fuel with solid-fuel rockets also signifies the fact that they can be made ready for firing much faster, and this sends a signal to all the neighbours, be it India or Russia. Hence, what the Chinese may consider a routine exercise may send a wrong signal and have serious implications. If India and Russia are the likely targets, one has to see what the available capabilities are with these two countries. India has tested a number of intermediate-range missiles, including the Agni-3, capable of taking both Beijing and Shanghai, though these missiles are still not operational. Russian capability in this area is far superior to India’s or China’s. The critical issue is that as China modernizes its strategic forces, India must also step up its very slow missile development programme. There has been a debate about China’s military doctrines, in particular its no-first-use policy. China’s increasing capabilities may accelerate this debate.
These developments appear to be part of a larger pattern of aggressive military expansion, rising military expenditure, and a general opaqueness about China’s military programmes and ambitions. For example, SIPRI, an independent and well-respected Swedish think-tank, reported Chinese military expenditure, if calculated in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms, shows that Beijing spends almost US $ 200 bn every year. China is also one of the world top arms importers. China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) test in January 2007 is another indicator of its ambitions that go well beyond its borders.