China’s ‘Nuclear Train’ – As US flexes muscle in Asia, Beijing plans to launch its ICBMs via high-speed railways

The Chinese government is exploring options for deploying rail-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the high-speed train is seen as a potential launch platform for nuclear strikes after a new study by Chinese researchers has suggested that it was more appropriate than previously thought.

Yin Zihong, an associate professor of civil engineering at Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu, Sichuan province, leads the team of scientists in the national research project funded by the central government.

Findings by Yin and his colleagues published last week suggest that in some cases a high-speed railway could perform better than a heavy industrial railway, which is generally considered more suitable for the task.

“Compared to heavy railways, high-speed railways run faster and easier. This means that on high-speed trains, the mobility, security and concealment of military vehicles would be more important,” the researchers said.

Image for reference only – Winter Olympic Train, China

Powerful shock wave

A normal railroad uses ballast, such as small rocks and gravel, to absorb shock. A heavy haul line built to transport ore and coal requires more ballast.

According to a 2020 study by Yin’s team, an ICBM launch would produce a powerful shock wave up to 8 meters (26 feet) underground, far beyond the thickness of the structure of basis of most rail lines and even heavy rails. would need a better fortified underlying structure to survive launch.

High-speed trains in China travel up to 350 km/h (217 mph). They are slim and can hold up to 16 wagons each weighing around 60 tons.

Yin and his colleagues simulated the operation of a high-speed rail launch system using data from previous test launches conducted by the Chinese military and computer modeling.

Their study indicated that it would not be necessary to provide additional strength for a high-speed railway because its rails are laid and fixed on concrete without the need for ballast as a buffer zone.

A Beijing-based railway engineering researcher who asked not to be named said the finding should not come as a complete surprise as the extremely high operational speed requires the railway line to have a much stronger foundation than regular rail.

Publicly available information suggests that the support structure of some high-speed rail foundations in China is as deep as 60 meters.

The researchers’ simulation showed that most disruption from a missile launch would be limited to shallow areas of rail infrastructure, where damage was more easily detected and repaired.

Chinese missile test
Chinese missile tests; image for representation purposes only (via PLA Daily)

Some Dangers Exist

However, the researchers warned that some very low-frequency vibrations produced by the launcher could pose a risk to surface components, such as the rail and the concrete slab.

According to Yin, a modern ICBM installed inside a train car during take-off, its weight would generate a thrust of 2 to 4 times the train’s maximum load capacity and while a high-speed train can be modified to withstand at a launch, the stress caused would mainly affect the rail and its foundations, thus damaging the infrastructure and rendering it unsafe and unusable.

According to military experts, an ICBM launch system transported by rail has a higher probability of surviving the first wave of nuclear attack compared to other land-based systems, such as silos and trucks. Moreover, according to some estimates, a train could carry as many missiles as a nuclear submarine.

Hwasong-17 missile. (Wikipedia)

That said, it remains unclear if or when the Chinese military would deploy a bullet train-based nuclear launch platform.

In 2016, China tested the tube launch system for the rail-moving version of its ICBM DF-41. The test involved a “cold launch” of a DF-41 from a canister with a gas charge without the missile engine running.

Decades old concept

The concept of rail mobile nuclear weapons dates back decades. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union became the first power to gain the operational capability of a train-based ballistic missile launch system by developing the RT-23 Molodets ICBM that could fit in a standard train car.

The missile was 2.4 meters in diameter and used solid fuel for a relatively fast launch, and could hit targets up to 6,800 miles away. It was filled with ten 550 kiloton nuclear warheads which separated to hit different targets during re-entry.

Lately, the United States’ Global Missile Defense System and the Conventional Rapid Global Strike (C-PGS) program of hypersonic missiles have prompted countries like Russia, China and North Korea to diversify and increase mobility and the flexibility of their nuclear deterrent forces.

In 2012, Russia began developing a successor to the RT-23 called the RS-27 which would use a much lighter RS-24 Yars missile weighing just 54 tons and carrying only 4 nuclear warheads. Less weight would allow the system to use standard train carriages with regular wheels and mount 6 ballistic missiles instead.

RS-24 Yars - Russian nuclear ballistic missile - YouTube
RS-24 Yars – Russian nuclear ballistic missile

The Yars are claimed to travel at 20 times the speed of sound, perform evasive maneuvers and deploy decoys to evade ballistic missile interceptors. However, due to international sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and falling oil prices, work on the RS-27 had to be stopped.

In January, North Korea tested its KN-23 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from a wagon. This was a second test after September 2021 when Pyongyang for the first time demonstrated the ability to launch SRBMs from a rail launcher.

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