China’s high-speed rail lines are becoming a major transport force for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), allowing the rapid movement of military forces throughout the country, a recent state-run news report revealed.
Since few nations are likely to invade China, the recent discussion in a Communist Party news outlet about military uses of the new rail network is raising questions about the PLA’s future role in quelling domestic unrest.
The China Youth Daily outlined the military benefits of China’s six high-speed rail lines in the report.
“While bringing convenience to the lives of the masses, high-speed rail also plays a military role that is growing more prominent by the day,” the Jan. 14 article states, noting that a lightly equipped division could be moved on the Wuhan-to-Guangzhou line — about 600 miles — in five hours, a fairly rapid mobilization in military terms.
“And the Second Artillery [missile forces] could use the high-speed rail network to quickly deploy short-range missiles in a certain strategic direction” — presumably from inland locations to coastal regions near Taiwan or Japan, the report said.
Other key rail lines include the Xian-Baoji and Xiamen-Shenzhen connections that are part of the network that has made China a world leader in high-speed rail.
Since 2009, the PLA has been using high-speed trains to move troops in exercises. In July 2011, the military conducted a rapid troop transfer using the Beijing-to-Shanghai high-speed line.
The report said China eventually will set up a high-speed network of eight lines extending in all directions.
A typical military train includes 16 high-speed rail cars that carry 1,100 lightly armed soldiers.
“With the daily improvement in China’s high-speed rail network, transferring a 100,000 person army 1,000 li [310 miles] might be possible within half a day in the future,” the report said, adding that the military will use high-speed rail to project “mobile combat forces in various strategic directions.”
Among the problems in relying on rail instead of air transport for military forces is that trains require stable lines that are difficult to conceal and protect with air defenses.
“It is even harder to conceal important nodal targets such as numerous bridges, tunnels, and stations,” the report said. “Even if the enemy did not employ long-range precision strike weapons, but simply sent personnel to damage key numbers of power facilities, it would be enough to paralyze electrified high-speed railways.”
For missiles, the report said “the use of high-speed trains as mobile launch platforms for strategic weapons is also a good idea.”
China is planning rail-mobile ICBMs on a separate system that is not built for high-speed travel but for heavy transport.
“Train transport affords better stability than road maneuvering,” the report said. “The speed with which vehicles change direction is less than in road maneuvering and is suited to testing work during maneuvering to reduce the time required to prepare for firing. In addition, it is possible to maneuver and shift more than a thousand kilometers at once, making it easier to escape enemy tracking.”