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The mystery behind China’s Hebei Mountains
Guest Column by Debalina Chatterjee 19/6/2012
To be able to retaliate to an enemy’s first strike is not just about having adequate arsenal to do so, it is also about being able to survive the enemy’s attack and then being able to retaliate.
In 1989, Major General Yang Huan had raised concerns over enhancing China’s survivability of strategic nuclear weapons. Over the past few years there have been concerns raised on China’s “underground Great Wall”. It has been suspected that China’s Second Artillery Corps has been digging mountainous regions in the province of Hebei in the Western parts of Shaanxi province to hide their missile arsenals.
The Pentagon reports state that China had over the years used under ground facilities to hide their missile arsenals. China has also been changing from liquid propelled missiles which were silo based to solid propelled missiles like the DF-31 and DF-31A and hence, more apt to become road mobile. However, road and rail mobile missiles could still be vulnerable to US pre emptive attack and hence, an underground tunnel adds to China’s survivability strength. This decision was taken as Beijing realised the chances of the missiles that were deployed above the ground and hence could be detected by spy satellites or be destroyed by enemy missiles and bombers. This would enable China to enhance its counter strike capability given its no first use. Ballistic missiles like the D-5 are reported to be in un fuelled state which means that it could take a long time, probably a few hours for them to get prepared for launch. The tunnel could provide a protective shelter under which the missile could be prepared for launch. Several Chinese soldiers from the Second Artillery Corps have been involved in construction of the network of tunnels.
The network of tunnels as called by the Chinese as “hard and deeply buried targets” is expected to increase China’s chances of survivability of the arsenals thereby increasing their chances of an assured second strike, thereby ensuring assured destruction. It must be taken into consideration that once a country has assured its survivability, the number of arsenal that the country possesses becomes immaterial because the country can cause assured destruction even if it has less arsenal than its enemy. Hence, it could be concluded that once a weaker state has all the means to make its arsenal survivable, the state could achieve parity of power with the stronger state even with fewer arsenal. China’s nuclear parity with the United States could be called as in Gorbachev’s words “casuistry”.
However, it has been assumed that the tunnel would also be used for launching strikes from underground. One of the best medium of survivability of arsenal is by placing the arsenal in submarines. China has still a long way to go in developing a blue water capability with credible SSBNs and SSNs. Hence, the tunnel would be the best option for China to enable its forces to survive. It would also enable China to transport the arsenal from one place to another and also to launch a strike from anywhere under the tunnel.
Michael Turner who chairs the House Arm Services Committee had estimated the network of tunnels could be in excess of 5000kms. The Americans are particularly perturbed about the fact that at a time when Washington is trying to make its nuclear strategy transparent, China remains ambiguous with its nuclear weapons and delivery systems by digging under ground tunnels to accommodate them. Decoupling of warheads from the missiles would lead to serious difficulties in quantifying China’s nuclear arsenal. This could further jeopardise the strategic balance in the region of Asia and affect America’s calculation of risk and cost of intervention in case of a crisis over the Taiwan issue. Under such cases even with more number of nuclear weapons compared to China, it could be difficult to target the arsenals hidden inside the tunnel.
It was reported that the China Defence Daily had provided a rare glimpse of the tunnel. The Xingua News Agency in China had reported on the tunnel being constructed underground. It has been reported that the tunnel’s outermost layer is 1000metres deep and covered with soil and “does not include any artificial reinforcements”. 1000metres deep implies that such tunnels would be beyond the range of enemy ships or submarine based missile attacks. Tunnel launch facilities would not be affected by any kind of weather disturbances.
The Americans could be more concerned as with such kind of developments taking place in the region, America’s first strike option gets negated. Further reason of concern is the fact that the activities can be conducted inside the tunnel without being detected from space. Nuclear deterrence is dependant more on survivability than on the number of arsenals. In case of a conflict over the Taiwan issue between the United States and China, even a conventional attack on China could result in a Chinese nuclear retaliation. This is because China has stated that the nuclear retaliation would not be against enemy territory. However, China considers Taiwan to be a part of its own territory under the ‘one China policy’.
The ambiguity in nuclear arsenal of China could lead the United States in increasing its own arsenal or probably in enhancing its ballistic missile defence capabilities which could lead Russia to follow the same path of further arming itself. It could also lead China to change its nuclear doctrine to ‘first use’ given that the survivability of the arsenal would be enhanced inside the tunnel. It could also enable the Chinese to not to completely depend on the BMD that they are working on. In case the Chinese BMD is unable to intercept incoming ballistic missiles or the Chinese are not able to intercept cruise missiles, there would still be a chance for the survivability of the arsenal. Such survivability could also rule out the chances of conventional warfare and nuclear weapons which are generally the weapons of the last resort could be used by the United States as the weapons of first choice in case of a warfare to be able to destroy these tunnels. It could be expected that the United States could use MIRV-ed nuclear warhead missiles to destroy the tunnel.
However, there could be positive outcomes of this too. China and the United States could enter into an arms talk. Mutual deterrence between the two would be easier to maintain as the United States could be apprehensive of assured Chinese retaliation after an assured survivability. Even though the United States could boast of the Ballistic Missile Defence, the Chinese counter measures on their ballistic missiles could negate such defences quite easily. While bunker busting techniques could work for the nuclear warhead missiles to penetrate into these protected bases, it could take several warheads to do the job of both penetration and destruction of the tunnel. For China, this tunnel system would mean that in case its ballistic missile defence which it is developing fails to intercept the ballistic missiles from enemy countries used to destroy its arsenals, China’s survivability would still be enhanced. It also would make China’s arsenals less exposed to cruise missile threats. Even if these tunnel systems would not be able to hide counter value targets from being hit, the fact that there would be an assured retaliation from the Chinese could deter the United States from attacking Chinese counter value targets. Both United States and China should indulge into more arms control talks to maintain peace and stability in the Asia Pacific Region.
(Debalina Chatterjee is a Research Associate of the Centre for Air Power Studies, Western Air Command)
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