By Mark Stokes and L.C. Russell Hsiao |
An amateur photographer posted a video on China’s Youku website on August 24 capturing a probable Dongfeng-31A (DF-31A) convoy transiting downtown Shaoyang (邵阳), a prefecture-level city in Hunan Province (womil.com, August 24, 2011).  The video was taped at the intersection of Xihu Road (S217) and Highway G207, and showed a single DF-31 transporter, erector, launcher (TEL) moving north accompanied by six camouflaged support vehicles and a Public Security (公安) escort.
The DF-31(A) TEL may have been on its way to a new Second Artillery brigade headquarters facility located in the far western suburbs of the city. Formerly based in Hunan’s Tongdao (通道) County, the 805 Brigade (96313 Unit) initiated construction of new facilities in Shaoyang in 2008 and completed its relocation last year (Shaoyang Daily, August 12, 2010; shaoyangtv.com, February 11, 2010; shaoyang.gov.cn, August 12, 2010). Older facilities in Tongdao County were being dismantled in 2010 (tdsfxz.gov.cn, January 11, 2011).
Senior Colonel Yi Decai (易德才) has served as the 805 Brigade commander since as early as 2007 (shaoyang.gov.cn, August 12, 2010; sygyy.com, November 23, 2010). He formerly commanded the 55 Base’s nuclear warhead depot and before that served as 814 Brigade (96315 Unit, Huitong) chief of staff. The 805 Brigade’s political commissar, Colonel Dai Weide (戴伟德), previously served as political commissar of the 55 Base’s warhead storage regiment —a key stepping stone for future leadership positions—and overlapped with Yi Decai (Science and Technology Daily, January 11, 2011; Science and Technology Daily, July 8, 2010; Science and Technology Daily, July 13, 2010; Shaoyang Daily, August 12, 2010). Reporting from early 2011 indicates that the 805 Brigade chief of staff is Lu Yi’nian (卢义年), who formerly served as a battalion commander. The brigade’s senior engineer is Ma Zhaodong （马朝东）. The brigade oversees six launch battalions, a communications battalion, a site management battalion, technical battalion, and a technical support battalion. Nuclear warheads that the unit would employ are maintained in a specialized storage facility.
The DF-31 and DF-31A are assumed to carry only a single nuclear warhead, which do not appear to be mated with missiles during peacetime. The 55 Base’s 905 Regiment— euphemistically referred to as an Equipment Inspection Regiment—maintains the 55 Base’s inventory of ballistic missiles and limited number of nuclear warheads in underground facilities. The 55 Base Technical Service Regiment (96322 Unit) has responsibility for transporting warheads and missile sections from 905 Regiment depot facilities to launch brigades when ordered to do so. The brigade’s technical battalion assembles missile sections and mates them with warheads in underground facilities maintained by the brigade’s site management battalion. The missile is subsequently hoisted and loaded into the brigade’s TELs, which are rolled out to pre-surveyed launch sites. The brigade’s communications battalion is tasked with ensuring the brigade commander and political commissar maintain constant communication links internally within the brigade and externally with upper echelons.
The 805 Brigade is said to have previously been equipped with the liquid fueled, two staged DF-4 (NATO designation: CSS-3) intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM). With a range of at least 5,500 kilometers (km), the DF-4 is capable of reaching targets throughout the Asia-Pacific region, including U.S. facilities on Guam. State media reporting indicates that the 805 Brigade began planning for the conversion to a new missile system at least as early as 2007. The conversion reflects a broader trend in the shift from liquid- to solid-fueled missiles that are road/rail-mobile, and capable of being launched more rapidly. A submarine launched variant of the DF-31, the JL-2, is still being flight-tested.
Since integrating the new missile system, the 805 Brigade has implemented an aggressive training program. In July 2010, the brigade conducted an exercise involving rapid response, mobility, and survivability. During the second week of March 2011, the brigade carried out tactical mobility training involving night time operations under communications jamming conditions. In April 2011, another exercise tested the unit’s ability to counter enemy space surveillance assets. The brigade appears to have been involved in acceptance testing in 2009, which likely involved live fire exercises, and formally introduced the new missile variant into its inventory in 2010.
The 805 Brigade may be the third known Second Artillery unit equipped with a type of DF-31. The first unit equipped with DF-31 was likely the 54 Base’s 813 Brigade, based in Nanyang, Henan Province. The Nanyang brigade received its first missiles for operational test and evaluation as early as 2003, and achieved initial operational capability by 2006. Senior Colonel Wang Zhanxiang (王占祥) oversaw the Nanyang brigade’s integration of the DF-31 in the early 2000s. Promoted in 2009, Major General Wang now serves as 55 Base Senior Engineer. A second unit—the 812 Brigade (96363 Unit), located in Tianshui, Gansu Province—was probably the first to be equipped with the extended range DF-31A variant. Previously based in Delingha (Qinghai Province) and equipped with the DF-4, the 812 Brigade began its transition to Tianshui as early as 2001 and completed conversion to the DF-31A in the 2007 timeframe. (NOTE: The Second Artillery brigade currently based in Delingha–the 96367 Unit–appears to be the Second Artillery’s Northwest Test and Training Base.)
As a side note, Chinese government publications indicate the possible establishment of a test and evaluation unit (试训队) under the 54 Base, headquartered in Luoyang, Henan Province. Located within Xinyang City in southeastern Henan, the test and evaluation unit may be introducing a new missile variant into the Second Artillery Force’s operational inventory. The U.S. Department of Defense has reported in the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011 that China is currently developing a new road-mobile ICBM, possibly capable of carrying a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV).
The presence the DF-31(A) convoy in Shaoyang augments reporting of the 805 Brigade’s conversion to a new missile variant, and appears to confirm the retirement of the DF-4 and initial introduction of the DF-31(A) to Hunan’s 55 Base. Beyond improved survivability, replacement of the DF-4 with the DF-31(A) increases the number of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles that could be dedicated to a regional scenario, and possibly the United States, in a crisis situation. According to the 2010 DoD report, the Second Artillery had approximately 10-15 DF-31 and 10-15 DF-31A missiles in the active inventory.  Each brigade is presumably equipped with 12 launchers (six launch battalions, two subordinate companies each, and with each company assigned one launcher). Estimates of China’s ICBM inventory appear to be based upon the assumption of roughly one missile per launcher (or silo). The Shaoyang brigade is likely equipped along similar lines as the first two DF-31 units.
This post updates and corrects previous Asia Eye posting.
Mark Stokes is the executive director and L.C. Russell Hsiao is a senior research fellow at The Project 2049 Institute.