Strategic Weapons: The Return Of The Nuke Trains


January 22, 2016: In early December 2015 China conducted a launcher test of a new rail-mobile version of the DF-41 ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). This test involved the called cold launch system. This involves igniting the rocket motor after the missile is ejected from its launch tube with a gas charge. This means the launcher is not damaged by the rocket motor blast and can be reused. In this case the test ensured that the missile tube launch system, originally designed for road vehicles, also worked on a rail car. Moreover this test is a significant milestone for Chinese strategic arsenal because their biggest and most powerful nuclear missile can be now launched from a rail mobile and very hard to find platform.

The DF-41 missile is successor of DF-31 which has a range of 10,000 kilometers, allowing it only to reach the west coast of the United States. The DF-41 is estimated to have range of 15 thousand kilometers and one missile can carry up to 10 warheads that can separate from the body of the rocket and target individual destinations in the final stage of flight (MIRV system), thus making defense much more difficult. Previously DF-41s were based in silos and road-mobile launchers. China probably obtained rail-mobile missile technology from Ukraine, which during the Soviet period was a manufacturer of the (now decommissioned) twelve Russian SS-24 rail-based ICBMs. However it should be noted that the Russians want to revive the concept by manufacturing five new ones called “Barguzin”. Each train will be able to carry six new “Yars” missiles and are supposed to be deployed by 2020.

The “nuke trains” also known as “land submarines” first appeared during the Cold War era. The combination of high-speed mobility, launch cars disguised as civilian passenger trains, tunnel protection and secure reloading of missiles, coupled with multiple warheads, made the system extremely hard to find and counter. In contrast SSBNs (ballistic missile submarines) were always threatened by enemy hunter (SSN) submarines while the “nuke trains” were protected by sheer size of Russian territory and rail network.

China has a similar situation with huge territory and about 120,000 kilometers of railway lines. The rail network is set to double by 2050. This is the Chinese response to the American “Prompt Global Strike” which poses a threat for their nuclear arsenal. That’s because the American system is based on the use of precision-guided conventional weapons capable of striking targets at any location on earth in as little as an hour. -- Przemysław Juraszek




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