A few days after China conducted atomic blasts in Tibet in March 2005 to divert the Yarlung Tsangpo, or the Brahmaputra, Indian spy planes and satellites spotted the transport of nuclear missiles and suspected fissile material over the Karakoram highway connecting China with Pakistan.
The Times of India had earlier reported China’s ambitious plan to divert the course of the Brahmaputra from south to north in Tibet’s Moutou and Great Bend regions in March 2005. But what made the transfer of nuclear missiles – possibly to locations within Pakistan – significant from the Indian perspective was the movement of road-mobile, short-range ballistic missiles, Dongfeng 11, also known as M-11 missiles via the Karakoram highway in 1995.
Highly classified Indian intelligence reports suggest that in March 2005, an important contingent of the People’s Liberation Army, carrying 11 transporter erector launcher (TEL) laden with short-range nuclear missiles was photographed by spy planes of the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) moving through the Karakoram Pass. The Indian security establishment estimated the PLA troops, led by a brigadier rank officer, numbering about 550.
Typically, Chinese TELs are 16-wheeled behemoths that have integrated prime movers that can carry, elevate to firing position and launch or multiple missles. These vehicles are employed to fire surface-to-air as well as surface-to-surface missiles. The Chinese TELs are compatible for firing the Dongfeng 11 and some of the missile’s more improved and lethal versions that have been deployed in different parts of China and shared with Pakistan.
Besides Pakistan, China was recently suspected to have provided North Korea with at least six TELs which was part of Beijing’s covert arms proliferation efforts and therefore stood in breach of United Nations Security Council resolution 1874.
The movement of the TELs, believed to have been designed and built by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, which is the PLA’s main mobile-missile producer, on the Karakoram highway took place just before the then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Islamabad in April 2005 when the two countries signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. At that time, China had also agreed to establish a facility to produce land attack cruise missiles (LACMs) for the Pakistanis.
Indian intelligence, according to National Security Council reports, also learnt that the LACMs were tested in September 2005 and were suspected to have been transported from China which helped the Pakistanis build a ballistic missile manufacturing facility near Rawalpindi for the Shaheen-1, a variant of the Dongfeng 9 Chinese missiles.
Although the Indian security establishment is well aware of China’s missile proliferation efforts in the region, including providing assistance to Pakistan in strengthening its nuclear missile programme, the atomic blasts to divert the Brahmaputra in Tibet and the transport of nuclear warheads via the Karakoram highway reflect a failure of New Delhi’s diplomacy in containing the threat from its largest neighbour.
- Times of India