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Insight: China builds new PLARF missile base on Hainan

29th August 2018 - 09:27 GMT | by The Shephard News Team in Hong Kong

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Satellite imagery reveals the existence of a hitherto unknown facility for the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province that verges on the South China Sea.

The base is located 10km west of the city of Danzhou on Hainan. Satellite imagery shows seven four-storey barracks, six garages, an additional high-bay garage and three administrative buildings.

An article published by ThePrint on 23 April said that construction commenced last year, and that the base could be operational by the end of 2018. The article predicted DF-31AG intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) would be based there.

The DF-31AG, unveiled during the 30 July 2017 parade in Zurihe, is an incremental upgrade of the DF-31A with greater range (estimated at 12,000+km) and mobility. It can reportedly be armed with up to five or six multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV).

However, the future stationing of DF-31AGs on Hainan is far from certain. Indeed, there is a strong argument that the road-mobile DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) mounted on a 12x12 transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) is a far more likely contender.

Publicly unveiled at the Victory Day Parade in Beijing on 3 September 2015, the dual-capable DF-26 with estimated 4,000km range can carry either a conventional or nuclear warhead. According to the Ministry of National Defense, the DF-26 can hit both land and sea targets. The PLARF began fielding it in 2016, and Military Balance lists at least 16 missiles in its inventory.

Adam Ni, a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University, told Shephard: ‘The DF-26’s deployment highlights China’s improving regional nuclear deterrent capabilities, and the diversification of its suite of nuclear and conventional precision strike options.’

He added: ‘Whether intended or not, the ambiguity arising from the dual capability of the DF-26 could further increase its deterrence effect by introducing additional risks of nuclear escalation for enemies planning to target PLARF units armed with conventional DF-26s.’

Ni suggested that DF-26s would normally have a conventional role, but that the PLA needs to signal this to the US and the rest of the world. Nevertheless, Ni said ‘they can shift to nuclear footing pretty fast’.

It is unclear to which unit the new Hainan facility will belong, with the two most likely contenders being Base 61 (previously known as Base 52) or Base 62 (formerly Base 53). Ni commented that ‘Base 61 makes sense because of its deterrence and Taiwan mission’. However, he conceded this was only a guess as it ‘would mean adding more assets to a missile base that is already much more powerful than the others’.

Ni deduced that the Hainan facility could come under 626 Brigade (according to the new numbering system). This particular brigade seems to have the closest headquarters to Hainan and, currently believed to field both DF-21 medium-range ballistic missiles and DF-26 IRBMs, it could be transitioning to only the latter.

Concluding, Ni said: ‘So this leads me to believe that the new [Hainan] facility could house an element from the 626 Brigade under Base 61, armed with the dual-capable DF-26. Given that the PLA Navy’s SSBNs are also in Hainan, I’m not sure the PLA would keep that many nuclear assets there in close proximity.’

The navy has a nuclear submarine base located at Yulin on the island’s southern coast. Extensive underground facilities at the base allow weaponry to be kept there for use by SSBNs. 

Another issue is that Hainan is quite distant from China’s hinterland where nuclear warheads and their carrier missiles are historically kept. Ni observed that Hainan 'is on the edge of China’s nuclear warhead infrastructure' and that transportation, storage and security 'would all create issues'.

He said it would make more sense for China to retain its nuclear warheads in the heart of the country, instead of on Hainan, to keep them from prying US eyes. Ni continued: ‘Note that China’s official policy is to not have any nuclear weapons deployed, meaning that missiles and warheads are not mated, but are stored separately.’

Furthermore, with the DF-31AG already able to reach any target in the US from a launch location in central China, what advantage does deploying these ICBMs so far south convey?

The next question to ask, therefore, is what role would DF-26s play on Hainan? Ni concluded: ‘If the above is correct, the conventionally armed DF-26 would be primarily for a regional deterrence mission, especially for a South China Sea contingency.’

'If the above is correct, the conventionally armed DF-26 would be primarily for a regional deterrence mission, especially for a South China Sea contingency.’

Adam Ni

China is working intensively to tighten its grip on the South China Sea by fortifying reclaimed reefs and island and by stationing assets on the periphery of the maritime area. Moving the DF-26, given its maritime strike capability, to Hainan makes sense. However, it must be remembered that the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile can already take care of hostile naval vessels in the area.

The Pentagon’s recent report, entitled ‘Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018’, noted that ‘China is enhancing peacetime readiness levels for these nuclear forces to ensure responsiveness’.

It also mentioned Chinese military writings that indicate the PLARF has discussed the use of ‘launch on warning’, a heightened readiness posture ‘to enable a more rapid response to enemy attack’. Its defensive network includes a space-based early warning system.

According to the Pentagon, there are approximately 100 Chinese ICBMs in service. The report does not list any changes to the overall inventory of ballistic missiles/launchers compared to 2017. Sixteen DF-31AGs mounted on 16x16 TELs were shown in the July 2017 parade.

Rail mobility for the DF-41 ICBM is mentioned in the report too, plus it is the first credible source to suggest the DF-41 might have a silo-basing option as well.

The Pentagon is questioning Beijing’s pledge of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons. The document states: ‘China’s lack of transparency regarding the scope and scale of its nuclear modernisation programme raises questions regarding its future intent.’

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