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China could put 1,000 nukes in range of US, Europe with bullet-train missile launchers

Chinese DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles, during a Chinese military parade. (Screenshot)
June 06, 2022

China is studying the use of high-speed railways equipped with missile launchers to move intercontinental ballistic missiles around the country and, according to one military researcher, the rail system could be used to move up to 1,000 nuclear warheads within range of targets in the U.S. and Europe.

Rick Fischer, a Chinese military researcher at the Global Taiwan Institute, told The Sun this week that such a high-speed rail system could allow China to house and support an additional 1,000 warheads, it can move to different parts of the country, to put the weapons within striking range of targets either in Europe or the U.S.

“It’s not inconceivable that China’s rail system could support 1,000 additional warheads capable of reaching European and American targets,” Fischer said.

In March, the South China Morning Post had reported that Chinese researchers believe high-speed rail-based ballistic missile launchers may be better suited to move and fire nuclear-capable ballistic missile launchers than previously thought.

The high-speed rail system has trains that can travel up to 217 miles per hour, with 16 carriages capable of carrying 60 tonnes. A Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Dongfeng-41 (DF-41) intercontinental ballistic missile is believed to measure about 22 meters (72 feet) long and two meters (6.5 feet) in diameter. The DF-41 could theoretically fit well inside a typical bullet-train car, which measures about 27 meters (88 feet) and three meters (9.8 feet) in diameter.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the road-mobile Chinese DF-41 missile can be equipped with up to 10 nuclear warheads at a time, in a configuration known as a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV).

The DF-41 has an estimated range of between 7,400 and 9,300 miles. The distance from one of China’s eastern-most cities, Hegang, to Los Angeles, Calif. is about 5,400 miles. The distance from Shanghai to New York City is about 6,400 miles. All of Europe would also be well within the estimated range of a DF-41 fired from the western Chinese region of Xinjiang.

“Building and deploying 100 new rail launched ICBMs would not strain China’s military budgets,” Fischer said. 100 of these rail-launched DF-41 missiles, each equipped with up to 10 warheads, would enable China to move 1,000 nuclear warheads along such a railway system.

While a bullet train concept could allow PLA missile forces to rapidly move its DF-41s around the country and avoid being targeted, there are still some technical questions about the limits to using high-speed rail infrastructure to support ICBM launches.

Yin Zihong, an associate professor of civil engineering with Southwest Jiaotong University, is the lead scientist for a Chinese government-funded study of the infrastructure requirements necessary for the high-speed rail ICBM launcher concept.

Yin told the South China Morning Post that the forces generated by a launching DF-41 are likely to be two to four times a high-speed railway’s maximum load capacity. Yin said a modified high-speed train could potentially withstand a launch, but most of the stress from the launch would pass down from the train and onto the railway system and potentially render it unsafe for future use.

According to a 2020 study by Yin’s team, even the infrastructure of China’s heavy-duty rail system would need to be reinforced to withstand the pressures from an ICBM launch. Even with the infrastructure concerns, Yin’s team sees some advantages to the high-speed rail ICBM launcher concept.

“Compared with heavy-haul railways, high-speed railways operate faster and more smoothly. This means that on high-speed rails, the mobility, safety and concealment of military vehicles would be greater,” Yin’s team said.