By Michael Peck | National Interest
ON THE WEB, 7 September 2018
China is testing the first electromagnetic railguns that can launch rockets. And it’s testing them … in Tibet?
Chinese media claims these would be the world’s first electromagnetic surface-to-surface rockets. As to why they are being tested in remote Tibet, China believes rockets launched from the “roof of the world” can hit the heartland of its rival India.
A rocket launched by an electromagnetic catapult would have more stability and accuracy than a regular rocket, while still being much cheaper than a missile with its own propulsion system, said Chinese experts.
The range and technical details of the weapon were not disclosed. But an electromagnetic catapult “can give the rocket a very high initial speed on its launching stage,” Han Junli, the project’s lead scientist, told state-run Science and Technology Daily.
“Han, who is stationed with a research institute of the ground force of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), described the project as the first of its kind in the world, and said it had been going steadily according to plan ‘with great breakthroughs,'” according to the South China Morning Post.
Han “has collected first-hand data from the 4,000-meter- (13,123 foot-) plus plateau and studied how to optimize the rockets for the high-altitude environment, where temperatures are extremely low in winter and the atmosphere is thin. Much lower air pressure there — which could be about half of that at sea level — means less air friction during flight, and possibly a longer range. However, thinner air also means less force that the tail fins can generate to control the rocket’s position during flight, greatly reducing its precision. An electromagnetic catapult launcher, which stabilizes the flight while increasing initial velocity, would make the rockets a much more powerful weapon, especially on the plateau.”
China and India share an uneasy border along Tibet and the Himalayas, over which the two nations fought a brief war in 1962 in which China seized disputed territories. While the area has been fairly quiet since, Indian and Chinese troops almost came to blows last year after Chinese troops began extending a road in the disputed border area of Doklam.
Long-range rockets would be a valuable asset in fighting over the highest mountains in the world, which severely taxes ground troops and aircraft. But “with hundreds of kilometres of range, from there they would be able to strike the heartland of India,” noted the South China Morning Post.
How India, which has nuclear weapons, would respond to rocket attacks on its cities is another matter.
China is already developing an electromagnetic catapult — just as the US has — to launch planes from aircraft carriers. But the electromagnetic rocket catapult, if successful, would turn railguns into battlefield artillery weapons capable of cheaply saturating a target with high-velocity rockets.