Hell on Wheels: China Is Preparing High-Speed ​​Rail Nuclear Weapons

China is watching launch nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from specially designed high-speed trains that can ferry its nuclear arsenal across the country’s vast landmass, making them harder to intercept and destroy.

The country’s high-speed trains travel up to 350 kilometers per hour, with 16 carriages each weighing around 16 tons. China has 37,000 kilometers of high-speed train starting this year, which can potentially give its railway nuclear arsenal excellent mobility and survivability.

According to Professor Yin Zihong, head of China’s national railway nuclear weapons research efforts, a modern ICBM could fit inside a train car, but when it unloaded its weight, it would generate a surge of two to four times the maximum load capacity of the train.

While the modified trains could withstand these launch forces, the stress of the shot would inevitably ripple through the tracks and other supporting infrastructure, rendering them potentially unsafe and unusable.

The powerful forces generated by an ICBM launch can penetrate up to eight meters underground, and even heavy duty lanes would need to be significantly reinforced to withstand a missile launch.

However, a study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Southwest Jiaotong University last week mentioned that heavy rails may not be necessary for rail-based ICBM launches, as most damage would be confined to areas. shallow depths of rail infrastructure that could be easily detected and repaired.

Additionally, the extremely fast operations of high-speed tracks require them to be built more robustly than standard rails, with some high-speed tracks in China having foundations up to 60 meters deep.

One of many Chinese high-speed trains. Photo: WikiCommons

In December 2016, China tested a rail-mobile version of his DF-41 ICBM, with a “cold launch” test that ejected the missile from its rail canister with pressurized gas without the missile motor being fired.

This contrasts with a full test where the missile engine would ignite milliseconds after leaving the launch canister. The test was probably intended to verify the compatibility of the tube launcher with its wagon.

the DF-41 would be 21 to 22 meters long, 2.25 meters in diameter and weigh 80,000 kilograms at launch. It uses a three-stage solid propellant engine to reach ranges of 12,000 to 15,000 kilometers and is believed to load up to 10 Independently Targeting Multiple Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs), along with decoys and penetration aids. to defeat missile defenses.

These rail-launched missiles can also be upgraded with hypersonic glide vehicles, which can further increase the difficulty of defeating the weapons.

China’s railway nuclear power plant project is emblematic of its military-civilian fusion strategywhich aims to promote the sharing of resources and collaboration in research and applications, and ensures the mutually beneficial coordination of economic construction and national defense.

That said, China could merge its commercial high-speed rail network with its nuclear weapons to give its ground arsenal greater tactical and operational advantages, as they can be more easily shielded from enemy surveillance than truck-based launchers and are less vulnerable. to bad weather.

In a crisis scenario, US intelligence would have a hard time identifying Chinese railroad nukes and distinguishing them from decoys given China’s huge landmass, extensive high-speed rail network, sophisticated homeland security and counter-intelligence apparatus and its cyber warfare capabilities.

Despite these advantages, railway nuclear weapons have their limitations. On the one hand, they are potentially vulnerable to terrorist attacks, which can require costly and extensive security procedures. Supplying a mobile nuclear unit and developing its logistical capability could also prove prohibitively expensive.

The idea of ​​railroad nuclear weapons dates back to the Cold War, based on the simple idea that a moving nuclear delivery system is much harder to take out in a preemptive strike. Although this is the fundamental principle of ballistic missile submarines, as they are very difficult to track at sea, the idea can also be applied to land-based nuclear weapons.

China’s nuclear stockpile has grown rapidly. Image: Pacific Forum/iStock

Railway nukes can be concealed by blending into civilian rail traffic or underground facilities as they are constantly moving. Although a preemptive strike could destroy some of these nuclear-armed trains, it is highly unlikely that such a strike would destroy a large fleet.

The Soviet Union began research on rail-mounted mobile ICBMs in the 1960s, but progress was slow and the first working systems were not fielded until the 1980s.

However, technical issues such as the fragility of liquid fuel systems and electronics, the limitations of solid fuel technology, the complexity of mounting an ICBM on a train, and improvements in road systems have meant that nuclear weapons on rails have never supplanted their silo and their submarines. versions.

However, contemporary advances in missile and rail technology may once again prove that the concept is feasible.

Jose P. Rogers