China Reorganizes Northern Nuclear Missile Launch Sites

A dozen trucks identified at possible missile launch sites near Delingha in the northern parts of central China resemble the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile launcher. If correct, about a third of China’s DF-21 inventory is deployed within striking distance of Russian ICBM fields.

By Hans M. Kristensen

China has significantly reorganized facilities believed to be launch sites for nuclear ballistic missiles near Delingha in the northern parts of Central China, according to commercial satellite images analyzed by the Federation of American Scientists.

The images indicate that older liquid-fueled missiles previously thought to have been deployed in the area may have been replaced with newer solid-fueled missiles. From the sites, the missiles are within range of three Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) fields and a bomber base in the southern parts of central Russia.

Analysis of Changes

The Chinese launch sites, which are located at an elevation of approximately 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), are in an area that for years has been rumored to be a deployment area for liquid-fueled DF-4 long-range nuclear ballistic missiles. In November 2006, FAS and NRDC published Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning, which used satellite images to describe the two launch sites. Several other apparent sites nearby did not have any infrastructure and many appeared abandoned.

The Delingha Mountain Range

The launch sites are located at approximately 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) on the slopes of this mountain range north of Delingha. This image (used with permission) was shot approximately six miles (10 kilometers) from Delingha.

The southern launch site has changed most dramatically. In late-2005, the site had what appeared to be a large missile garage, approximately 40 small buildings (possibly crew quarters), and more than half a dozen service trucks. A gate was also visible. In the new image from late-2006, all of those features are gone with only a single service truck visible on the launch pad, and the access road appears to have been paved (see below).

Delingha Launch Site 1 Changes

The southern launch site at Delingha (37°24’27.47″N, 97° 3’21.18″E) changed dramatically between late-2005 (left) and late-2006. All buildings were been removed and only a few small trucks remain. The 250-feet (80-meters) launch pad and the access roads have been paved.

The second launch site some 2.5 miles (4.3 km) to the north has also changed significantly, but here operations appear to have increased. In late-2005, this site included what appeared to be a missile garage, an underground facility, approximately 15 buildings, and less than a dozen service trucks of various sizes. The new satellite image from late-2006, however, shows that the large garage has been removed, the number of buildings nearly doubled, the access roads paved, and work appears to be in progress next to the underground facility (see below).

Delingha Launch Site 2 Changes

The northern primary launch site has been expanded significantly between late-2005 (left) and late-2006. Numerous new buildings have been erected, the access roads have been paved, work appears to be in progress next to the underground facility, and six 13-meter trucks that resemble launchers for the DF-21 MRBM are clearly visible on the launch pad. Check it out on Google Earth.

Most interestingly, clearly visible are eight 13-meter trucks lined up on the launch pad. The satellite image is not of high enough resolution to identify the trucks and their features with certainty, but they strongly resemble the six-axle transport erector launchers (TELs) in use with the 10-meter DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile. A vague line across the trailer two-thirds toward the rear resembles the position of the hydraulic pumps used to erect the missile canister to a vertical position.

Other Delingha Launch Sites

Possible DF-21 launchers are also visible at several of a dozen smaller possible launch sites. This one, north of the main site (Site 2), has also been upgraded with a new building.

Changes to Other Delingha Sites

The two launch sites described above are the most actively visible in the satellite images. But there are more sites that appear to be involved in missile operations. North along the main road is what appears to be five smaller dispersed parking or launch platforms. None of these sites had any vehicles or infrastructure visible in 2005, but the new image shows one 13-meter truck present at four of the five sites. One of the sites appears to be upgrading with new access roads, a building, and half a dozen service vehicles (see right).

Further to the west, approximately 10 miles (17 km) from site 1 and 2, is another road leading north into the mountains. Along this road, another eight possible dispersal launch sites are visible. No 13-meter trucks, buildings, or other vehicles are visible at these sites.

The DF-21 Medium-Range Ballistic Missile

The DF-21 is a medium-range ballistic missile estimated by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to have a range of approximately 1,330 miles (2,150 kilometers). It is China’s first solid-fueled ballistic missile and believed to carry a single warhead with a yield of 200-300 kilotons. Full operational deployment began in 1991. The missile is approximately 33 feet (10 meters) long and launched from a six-axle transporter erect launcher (TEL). Two versions of the missile are deployed, according to the DOD. Some might have been converted to carry conventional warhead.

DF-21 Medium-Range Ballistic Missile

A DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile during calibration.

The Defense Intelligence Agency estimated in 1996 that the DF-21 was expected to complement and possibly take over the strategic targeting role of the DF-3 by 2000. But introduction was slow. Whether this is now happening, and whether the DF-21 is also replacing DF-4s in some roles is unknown. The DOD’s annual report on China’s military power for years showed great uncertainty about the number of DF-21s, the 2006 report listing a range of 19-50 missiles on 34-38 launchers. The 2007 report, however, lists 40-50 missiles on 34-38 launchers, which suggests the DOD believes the number of missiles has increased while the number of launchers has stayed the same.

Possible Targets

From Delingha the DF-21 is in range of northern India (including New Delhi) and three Russian ICBM fields and a bomber base.

Uncertainties and Implications

It is important to caution that there is no information publicly available that confirms that the Delingha sites are launch sites for ballistic missiles, or that the 13-meter trucks indeed are DF-21 launchers. First, the changes at the sites may be routine because nearly all of China’s ballistic missile are mobile, and the support units are designed to follow the launchers wherever they go. Second, the rumored DF-4 deployment in the area may have been wrong, or the DF-21 may have moved in years ago but only been publicly visible now. U.S. and Russian spy satellites probably have monitored the changes at Delingha on a daily basis and provided a much more detailed understanding of what is happening at the sites.

Yet the indications that the DF-21 is deployed at Delingha appear to be strong. And if the dozen 13-meter trucks visible on the satellite images at Delingha indeed are DF-21 TELs, then 32-35 percent of China’s estimated inventory of DF-21 launchers are deployed in central China.

With a DIA-listed range of 1,330 miles (2,150 kilometers) the DF-21s would not be able to reach any U.S. bases from Delingha, but they would be able to hold at risk all of northern India including New Delhi. Moreover, and this is perhaps the most interesting implication of the discovery, DF-21s would be within range of three main Russian ICBM fields 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 at Belaya.

Whereas targeting New Delhi could be considered normal for a non-alert retaliatory posture like China’s, targeting Russian ICBM fields and air bases would be a step further in the direction of a counterforce posture. But again, it is unknown exactly what role the Delingha missiles have, and the DF-21 may not be accurate enough to pose a serious risk to hardened Russian ICBM silos. Regardless of targeting, Delingha appears to be very active.

B-2 Bomber Dropping JDAMs

A single B-2 stealth bomber with conventional JDAM bombs would probably be sufficient to incapacitate the Delingha missile launch sites.

One of the most striking features about the sites is their high vulnerability to attack. All appear to be almost entirely surface-based facilities (although Site 2 has an underground structure), and a mobile missile launcher is extremely vulnerable once it has been discovered. The sites were possible DF-21 launchers were detected are located within a distance of about six miles (10 kilometers). A single high-yield nuclear warhead would probably be sufficient to neutralize the entire force visible in the images.

But an adversary might not even have to cross the nuclear threshold. A single U.S. B-2 bomber loaded with non-nuclear JDAM bombs (see this video) would probably be sufficient to neutralize the dozen launch sites seen in the images. The United States has begun to incorporate such advanced conventional weapons into its strategic strike plans to give the president “more options.” Since China has repeatedly pledged that it “will not be the first to use such [nuclear] weapons at any time and in any circumstance,” some might conclude that a conventional strike on Chinese nuclear forces would not trigger Chinese use of nuclear weapons. But whether Beijing (or anyone else) would indeed stand idle by as its nuclear forces were taken out by conventional weapons is highly questionable.

Background: Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning | Delingha on Google Earth

11 thoughts on “China Reorganizes Northern Nuclear Missile Launch Sites

  1. JF: How about shooting nobody but to fool spy satellites? It would be insane for China to do counterforce, especially with the Russians, who have too much force to counter.

    Reply: I agree, I don’t think they are doing counterforce as we know it from US doctrine. But China does have a doctrine of “nuclear counterattack” (or “counterstrike”), and the 2006 defense white paper described efforts to “increase its capabilities of landbased strategic nuclear counterstrikes.” Does increasing the capabilities of the “counterstrikes” mean the same as increasing the capabilities of the delivery platforms, or something else?

    At least to me it’s not entirely clear whether the “nuclear counterattack” doctrine implies the same kinds of targets as in countervalue or could include something else. Even under China’s non-alert posture, planners will have to put x’s on the map in advance somewhere. And increased delivery capabilities in other nuclear powers have had a nasty tendency of creating mission-creep. HK

  2. SY: Interesting stuff. If your analysis is correct, the question becomes why? Targeting Russian missile fields seems possible but a stretch – unless China plans hundreds of missiles what calculation does targeting a small portion of Russia’s capabilities affect? [shortened, ed.]

    Reply: I am very careful in my analysis not to conclude that China is targeting the Russian ICBM fields, but to describe the changed deployment sites. It is probably more interesting how Russia may be targeting the Delingha sites. HK

  3. OB: Here is a report from the SSI reporting on what the author argues are increased debate within Chinese defense circles about possibly tailoring their “no first-use” policy towards a more flexible nuclear posture.

    If this is true, there could be an effort to shore up these areas to in fact attempt to provide the ability to rapidly neutralize Russian silos in the event of conflict before the Russians even attempt a launch. If this is true, however, it begs the question if the Chinese have worked on improving their fusing in order to provide a hard-kill capability needed to target those SS-18 and -25 silos.

    Also, if these [missiles] are placed [deployed] as they look to be, these weapons could also be within range of marshaling, logistics, and rail-head positions that would be feeding a long logistical train towards Russian forces in the West.

    Reply: My sense is that the missiles are for generic targeting along the Russian border, not necessarily targeting of the silos, which are both too many and too hard. HK

  4. Adam: I’d just like to complement the Strategic Security Blog for its excellent writing and coverage. What I have noticed is that due to the vast volumes of information posted on this blog a better search tool is necessary to really dig through all of the content. [shortened, ed.]

    Reply: Thanks for the appraisal. I’ve forwarded your recommendation to our computer department. HK

  5. JB: Maybe the idea is for a “demonstration of resolve” first strike, counting on the second-strike SSBN force (12-24 warheads) to control escalation? Hit a few (or even one) missile silos, bomber bases, or rail junctions as a political signal, rather than as a real counterforce option?

    The counterpart strategy against the US would be to hit Guam and/or Okinawa, maybe a carrier, with medium range missiles, while holding the DF-5s and JL-2s in reserve. [shortened, ed.]

  6. Ryan: Why would they spend money to pave the roads? Faster trucks, heavier trucks, passing two trucks side-by-side (if wide enough). In one picture there is an odd pad configuration having concentric arcs. Why pave the unconnected segment?

    Also, letting my imagination run… I can’t tell if the paved surface is concrete or gravel despite the tire smudging. However, concrete might be a good defense against ground penetrating radar in the event underground operations were increased. Also, the trucks could carry in excavation implements and carry out dirt. If I was to dig beneath one of these “pad” structures, I’d put the access hole right in the center. Look at Launch Site 1. Hmm, it’s somewhat plausible!

  7. Tim: Excellent post, though I have a few observations and questions of my own. It has been remarked before that the putative stationing of these missiles poses an enigma in terms of targeting and operational doctrine. Wrong location for countervalue, wrong arrangement for counterforce, and all the rationalizations offered so far seem somewhat forced, unconvincing “graduated counter infrastructure” hypotheses.

    My personal suspicion is that Delinghua is no longer an operational launch base per se, but rather a 2nd Artillery unit training area. My reasons for this suspicion are as follows.

    1) Lack of uniformity of launch facilities (of which IO counted 22 on the site). Militaries prize uniformity, from clothes to training to launch pads. Uniformity allows maximization of operating procedure efficiency and efficacy. This facility is marked precisely by a lack of uniformity.

    2) The former launch pads appear to be nothing more than large parking lots now, and the actual launch sites differ widely into the following types:

    Crop Circles (3): Main launch strips are all 45m in length. The first one of these is at 37°27’14.41″N 97° 1’54.73″E, and is a large launching strip with access for support vehicles and ancillary buildings for some unique purpose for this particular strip (none of the other sites have these) another is at is at 37°24’50.34″N: 96°49’45.58″E, with the concrete appearing slightly distressed, and the third at 37°27’46.54″N: 96°50’9.63″E and the concrete and surrounding terrain appears very distressed. Why would an operational site have distressed concrete?

    Long Strips (4): all are 40m, no paved access road, two are clean, one looks distressed, one is of bedrock, but exactly 40m and with vehicle tracks.

    Short Strips (5): 15m long, unpaved access.

    Mystery square: 10x10m at 37°25’40.04″N: 96°50’22.40″E. No shadow, seems like a pad, but for what?

    Road shoulders (9): Ranging from 40m to 550m in length. Though not necessarily for launches, these varied lengths would make for very useful practice both for individual TELs and convoys.

    Unfinished (1): 37°24’36.75″N: 96°50’44.94″E. Recognizable only by semicircular rivetment. Also have seen very suspicious picture of DF15 launch with consistent alluvial geology.

    In summary, as nuclear warfare base for mobile missiles Delinghua makes little sense, as a training center it makes more sense IMHO. [edited, ed.]

    Reply: Great comments and analysis. This is the problem of limited intelligence: many possibilities but little evidence. HK

  8. Taga: Delinghua’s ICBC is not only DF-21, at least DF-31A which range is over 12,000km is there and it passed the performance test in 2003 and 2004. If you know Chinese, you can surf the Chinese military website, some internal person release many nonofficial information. Your whole article is based on the conclusion that the missile is DF-21. This is a deadly error. B-2 can’t pierce through the defence lines of China, and China thinks this is sure, so he can deploy the missile in Delingha.

    Reply: As far as is known in the United States, DF-31A is not yet operational. There’re are many rumors on the Internet, but if you could point us to a credible source on DF-31A in Delingha, we are many who would like to see it.

    As far as I can see, it looks like DF-21 (or perhaps DF-25, if that is indeed the mysterious new missile that has emerge recently). The trucks are certainly not long enough to be DF-31s, unless there’s a shorter version than the ones that have been displayed. I expect the DF-31A launcher will be longer that the DF-31 given its longer range. I have been holding back on the DF-25, however, because there has been no hint about it in the intelligence reports in recent years.

    As for the safety of Delingha from B-2 attacks, I doubt Chinese planners are as confident as you. HK

  9. [Edited] If ever a nuclear war breaks out, China could be destroyed and the US devastated by about 50%. The PLA is unlikely to fire the first bullet. It will only retaliate.

    Herein lies the problem. The US is planning to make 100% sure that if it attacks China, the PLA would be helpless like in the Korean war. That it is unable to strike the US.

    The Pentagon is living in a fool’s paradise if it thinks it can eliminate the PLA arsenal with impunity. Those days are long gone. Yes in a showdown the Chinese will still have more to loose but the US ain’t going to escape punishment for starting a war.

    Reply: It would be interesting to hear more about the basis for your conclusion that China could be destroyed 100% but the US only 50%. Even so, most agree that China’s nuclear posture is not poised for a first strike against the United States.

    Yet China’s posture is changing and its next generation of long-range solid-fuel missiles will not have the same operational constraints as the old DF-5 liquid-fueled missiles. How more capable weapons will influence Chinese nuclear policy in the future remains to be seen, but if the history of the other nuclear powers are an indication, then there is no reason to believe Chinese nuclear policy will remain static. You somewhat acknowledge this trend by saying the days are long gone when the US could eliminate China’s nuclear arsenal with impunity.

    That China would have “more to loose” in a nuclear war certainly depends on who’s counting and what’s being counted. In terms of the size of nuclear arsenals, certainly, but it’s hard to find winners in nuclear wars. And the devastation and international repercussions of a nuclear exchange or disarming strike (if one believes in such an option) would be on a scale that would make both countries big losers. HK

  10. Has it occurred to all that highly visible sites are decoys stretching resources. Central Asia is not a good launch site for limited range nukes. Where are the buried sites near the Russian and Indian border?

    Reply: Don’t know. Do you know of any? HK

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