China claims ‘great breakthroughs’ with rocket technology that could give it an edge in a high altitude fight

  • China has reportedly been working on electromagnetic launchers for rocket artillery.
  • That kind of launch could make rockets more effective at high altitudes – such as in the Himalayas or on the Tibetan Plateau.
  • Those areas were the scene of a border standoff between China and India last year, their worst dispute in decades and one that Beijing is reportedly still smarting from.

Over the past month, Chinese officials have touted their progress with a new type of rocket propulsion that they say could give them an advantage in a potential conflict around the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayan mountains.

The project reportedly intends to add electromagnetic force to the launch of traditional rocket artillery, which is typically cheaper than missiles and can be fired in larger quantities.

Han Junli, lead researcher on the project, told the state-run Science and Technology Daily that an electromagnetic launch “can give the rocket a very high initial speed on its launching state.”

Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military expert, told the South China Morning Post that an electromagnetic catapult “may also be able to help stabilise the rocket during launch and improve its accuracy.”

Han, who researches the use of China’s ground forces, called the project the first of its kind and said work on it had been progressing steadily “with great breakthroughs.”

Chinese Type PHZ-89 122 mm 40-tube self-propelled multiple rocket launchers assigned to an army artillery regiment during a live-fire exercise in Jiangxi Province, August 21, 2016.

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Chinese Type PHZ-89 122 mm 40-tube self-propelled multiple rocket launchers assigned to an army artillery regiment during a live-fire exercise in Jiangxi Province, August 21, 2016.
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Wang Liang/Central Military Commission of the People’s Republic of China

Han’s work has reportedly involved gathering data from the Tibetan Plateau, which has an altitude of about 13,000 to 15,000 feet and is surrounded by mountains that reach higher.

Han told Science and Technology Daily that the greater range of electromagnetically launched rockets would mean they don’t need to deploy to the front lines – a challenging task in the region’s rough terrain.

Thinner air at higher elections, which may hinder traditional rockets, would also not be as big an obstacle for electromagnetically launched rockets. Reduced friction from thinner air may also allow such rockets to hit higher speeds, though thinner air may mean less precision.

“Conventional artillery that uses powder may suffer from lack of oxygen on plateaus,” Song Zhongping, a military expert, told the state-run Global Times earlier this month.

Electromagnetically launched rockets – which Song said could reach distances of 200 kilometers, or roughly 125 miles – would not face that issue, which “makes [them] very valuable in warfare on plateaus.”

The mountains and grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau seen the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China's Qinghai Province, May 24, 2016.

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The mountains and grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau seen the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China’s Qinghai Province, May 24, 2016.
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Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

“The plateau covers 26 per cent of China’s entire land territory,” Han was quoted as saying. “Rockets deployed in the field can cause severe damage to any invader in hundreds of square kilometres.”

“It is like in boxing,” he reportedly said. “The person who has longer arms and harder fists enjoys the advantage.”

Details about electromagnetic rocket artillery, like its range and how far along work on it is, remain unclear, but it is not the only potential venue for such technology.

Electromagnetic force is used in rail guns to fire projectiles with more precision and greater range that typical propulsion systems, and China’s military may include electromagnetic catapults on its next aircraft carrier.

China’s progress may be overstated, however.

While the rail gun appeared to be undergoing testing on a Chinese navy ship, sources told the Post that the vessel was a landing ship repurposed to hold the bulky electrical equipment needed to power the expensive-to-use weapon and that the new destroyers on which the rail gun is supposed to be deployed are not well suited for it.

A possible rail gun mounted on the Chinese Navy Type 072III-class landing ship Haiyang Shan.

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A possible rail gun mounted on the Chinese Navy Type 072III-class landing ship Haiyang Shan.
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@xinfengcao/Twitter

Electromagnetic catapults for aircraft, which China is said to be considering for its next aircraft carrier, may not yet be viable either.

The US Navy – which has struggled with its own rail-gun research – has an electromagnetic catapult aboard its newest carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, but a Pentagon report released earlier this year called into question that system’s ability “to conduct the type of high-intensity flight operations expected during wartime.”

A ‘win’ over a ‘bullying neighbor’

Han told Science and Technology Daily earlier this month that the necessity of rocket artillery was illustrated by a “military incident” that took place in a border region on a plateau in southwest China.

He did not specify what he was referring to, though he may have meant the 73-day border standoff between China and India in summer 2017 in the Doklam region where China, India, and Bhutan’s borders meet. After that incident, Han reportedly started making plans to target an unnamed opponent’s military installations in the area.

Deployments and activity at Chinese and Indian airbases around the Doklam Plateau increased in late 2017 and early 2018.

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Deployments and activity at Chinese and Indian airbases around the Doklam Plateau increased in late 2017 and early 2018.
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Google Maps

Chinese and Indian forces both backed away in late August that year, though troops from both sides have remained in the area and are believed to be reinforcing their positions, including upgrades to Chinese airbases in Lhasa and Shigatse and increased deployments to Indian airbases at Siliguri Bagdogra and Hasimara.

India has also moved forward with its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air-defense system, which is designed to intercept targets at greater distances and altitudes.

In the year since, Beijing and New Dehli have worked to mend relations, including the Chinese defense minister’s first visit since the standoff, during which he hailed their friendship as one dating to ancient times.

The two sides also agreed to “expand the engagement between their armed forces relating to training, joint exercises and other professional interactions” and to implement “confidence-building measures” along their border, including a hotline between armed forces there.

But China is reportedly still smarting from the incident. In the months since, Indian commentary has described the incident as a “win” for Dehli over a “bullying neighbor.” Comments this spring by India’s ambassador to China that attributed the standoff to Chinese actions drew a rebuke from Beijing.

“I imagine the Chinese are not pleased with how events unfolded last year, and there are some who felt like they were somewhat embarrassed by India,” Jeff Smith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, said in an interview earlier this month. “So I’m sure they’re redoubling their efforts down there to ensure that something like that doesn’t happen again.”