By 1971, the first-known nuclear weapon was brought to Tibet and installed at Tsaidam Basin in northern Amdo (Ch: Qinghai).1 Today, the defence arsenal is believed to include 17 top-secret radar stations; 14 military airfields, 11 of which are now being lengthened for new long-range combat aircraft; 8 missile bases; at least 8 ICBMs, and 70 medium-range and 20 intermediate-range missiles.
China has constructed 14 major air bases on the Tibetan Plateau and a score of tactical airstrips. These bases give the Chinese air force control of Tibet’s air space, the forward edge of battle in the event of war with India…
China’s own nuclear programme was partially pioneered on the Tibetan Plateau at the Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy (the “Ninth Academy”) 100 kilometres west of Amdo’s capital, Siling (Xining). The academy worked on nuclear bomb prototypes from the early 1960s, and the first batch of nuclear weapons produced there were stationed at two nuclear missile deployment and launch sites at Tsaidam Basin by the early 1970s.
Today, China’s DF-4 ICBMs with ranges of 4,000 to 7,000 kilometres are stored at the Tsaidam sites. Further, DF-4 missiles are deployed 217 kilometres southeast of Tsaidam, at Terlingkha (Delingha) headquarters of a missile regiment with four launch sites. A fourth, new nuclear missile station, located in southern Amdo bordering Sichuan, houses four CSS- 4 missiles with a range of 12,874 kilometre.
The 1970s also saw work on a missile base near Nagchuka in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where underground complexes now house intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles at a site that was selected as an alternative to Xinjiang’s Lop Nor for possible nuclear testing. Another underground complex close to Lhasa stores ground-toair and surface-to-surface missiles, which are paraded through the capital annually on Chinese Army Day. Further, stockpiles of these missiles are kept at Kongpo in southeast TAR. With China rapidly expanding and modernising its defence arsenal and continuing its programme of nuclear stockpiling, Tibet’s strategic value for military deployment and proliferation can only escalate this century.
A news analysis in 2008 revealed the following: “More than 50 launch pads for nuclear ballistic missiles have been identified scattered across a 2,000 square kilometer (772 square miles) area of central China, according to analysis of satellite images.” It showed a much larger deployment area than previously known, covering the northern parts of Qinghai Province around Delingha and Da Qaidam, where 58 launch pads have been identified.2
The high altitude of the airfields in Tibet is frequently suggested as precluding effective PLA air force air operations against India. But now, the PLA air force has been able to overcome this problem…
For the past decade, the missile configuration has been changing from liquid-fuelled to solid-fuelled missiles and an increased deployment of mobile launchers to reduce time “into action.” Reports indicate deployment of DF-21 missiles at Delingha and Da Qaidam as early as 2006.
China has constructed 14 major air bases on the Tibetan Plateau and a score of tactical airstrips. These bases give the Chinese air force control of Tibet’s air space, the forward edge of battle in the event of war with India, and the capability to fly sustained combat operations over India’s north and strike all India’s northern cities, including Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkota. Chinese electronic intelligence atop the plateau also confers an important advantage of combat information and battle management in any air war. The high altitude of the airfields in Tibet is frequently suggested as precluding effective PLA air force air operations against India. But now, the PLA air force has been able to overcome this problem with extended runways (10,000 feet to 14,000 feet) and through aerial refuelling, with strike aircraft taking off from lower-altitude airfields farther away and refuelling over Tibet for strikes at airfields or other targets in northern India.3
Infrastructure capabilities and limitations can significantly affect air combat operations. A detailed analysis of airfield suitability would require more current and detailed data than can be obtained on an unclassified basis.
In addition to the massive Chinese military presence, there are 5 known missile bases, at least 8 ICBMs, 70 medium-range missiles and 20 intermediate-range missiles.
- Central Tibetan Administration. “Tibet: Environment and Development Issues.” Department of Information and International Relations, Dharamsala, India, 26 April 2000.
- Hans M. Kristensen. “Extensive Nuclear Missile Deployment Area Discovered in Central China.” FAS Strategic Security Blog, 15 May 2008.
- Op cit, n. 5.