In honor of the coming Spring Festival next week, CCTV13 aired a program on 3 February of a winter mobile missile launch exercise and new year’s celebrations with the launch brigade. Not only does this video contain some wonderful details on launch exercises and the life of launch brigadiers, but it also allows us to geolocate a
2nd Artillery PLA Rocket Force launch brigade and raises a possible question on launch procedures.
The video begins at a base the night before a launch exercise. In the first scene a soldier, after retrieving his phone from a (semi-)locked cabinet, calls his parents to wish them a happy new year. The narrator explains that they are preparing for a launch exercise the next day. The video has a predawn shot of the base.
An alarm sounds, the troops prepare the convoy, and then they deploy to a remote area for the launch. The convoy shows several shots of the TEL. It appears to be a DF-31A.
Determining the Unit and Geolocating the Base
After the convoy reaches its launch area, the brigade appears to spend several hours preparing for the launch, which occurs after nightfall.
After the launch, it is time for the celebrations–complete with jiaozi–in a tent. During the celebrations the soldiers watch prerecorded videos from their families. Although probably somewhat staged, this scene does illustrate some of the hardships of the young launch brigader in being deployed far from home in remote areas for long periods of time. The political commissar of the unit also gives a speech.
I fear my time of relying on the Directory of PRC Military Personalities is coming to a close, but in final bout of luck Pang Xiuhai (庞秀海) is in the book associated with Base 51’s 816th Mobile Launch Brigade (96115部队) out of Tonghua, Jilin Province. This is rather far north, so all of the snow present in the video makes sense (chains are even visible on the TEL if one looks closely).
Now, where near Tonghua might this base be located? Although the soldiers put their phones in a glass case, there is a bus stop for the 96115 unit in Google maps. It is not directly outside of the facility, but it’s close enough that I can find the facility.
I have high confidence in the identification match based on the hedge pattern and the tile pattern in the cement.
The TEL is for a DF-31. However, I have associated Base 51 brigades with DF-3s and DF-21s (and now DF-21Ds). I’ve been scrutinizing the video, and a closer inspection of the launch shows what appears to be a DF-21 or DF-21D missile exiting the canister. The shape of the nosecone appears to more closely resemble a DF-21 warhead than that of a DF-31.
This is not the highest quality video, so I do have some uncertainty about this determination. But if this is the case, why? At the moment, I don’t know. But I’m going to look into it.
On a final note, I have not yet identified the site to which the launch brigade deploys. I commend anyone who wants to give it a try.
Update (7 Feb.): In my haste to post this quickly before the DPRK satellite launch (just barely made that deadline, as it turns out), I did not scrutinize the launch image as closely as I should have. My colleague at MIIS Philippe Mauger pointed out via email and my colleague RAJ47 pointed out in the comments here and on twitter (here) that the TEL during the launch is a DF-21D, which certainly explains the missile. Another colleague pointed out on Twitter that the PLA even clarified this. So now the question is why the 816th brigade was driving around with an old DF-31 TEL. In the video the brigade appears to be preparing the DF-31A TEL for the launch–was this for show? It is also not clear to me from the short video whether the DF-21 fired in the launch was already at the deployment location or was a part of the same convoy from the Tonghua main base, or whether that portion of the video was taken from a different exercise altogether.