I meant to add that Richard Clarke’s most recent book, Your Government Failed You has a fantastic account about tracking Russian nuclear weapons deployments.
The story, which involves the great Dennis Gormley, centers on Soviet units called “Mobile Technical Rocket Bases” (PTRB in the Russian acronym) that would ferry nuclear warheads to mobile missile units in the field:
The Soviets claimed to have no nuclear warheads in Germany and derided America for having put several thousand atomic warheads on German soil. Nonetheless, U.S. photography revealed that the Soviets had built well-guarded nuclear weapons bunkers in Germany. If a war started, we planned to destroy the bunkers quickly. My friend Dennis Gormley reminded me recently of what had happened in the late 1980s when he was running a small consulting firm. A young Russian soldier swam across the Oder River and defected. His captain, he said, had driven over the motorbike for which he had saved for years. It was more than the youth could take. So he defected and was quickly debriefed by U.S. intelligence and found to know nothing of value. The report on him said little but noted that he had worked in some sort of transportation unit called a PRTB.
Gormley had just explained to me his own work on trying to find PRTBs, the Russian acronym for Mobile Technical Rocket Base. Gormley believed that PRTBs actually placed the nuclear warheads on top of the Soviets’ mobile missiles in Europe. The warheads were stored separately to prevent some renegade officer from starting a nuclear war. In the event of an authorized war, the missiles would meet up with the warheads in predesignated clearings in the German woods. Along would come the PRTB and mate the warhead to the missiles. I told Gormley about the defector, and with Dennis’s help, the defector was debriefed again. His explanation of what a PRTB did was exactly what Gormley had guessed. And he was happy to locate his PRTB for us. He also noted that, of course, the nuclear warheads were not in the nuclear warhead storage areas. The storage sites were empty. They were just there for the Americans to bomb and think they had destroyed the threat. The real storage areas were hidden.
Years later after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Professor Gormley went to the East German site where the defector said the weapons had been. He found an abandoned base with “Keep Out” signs noting a radiation hazard. Police chased him away.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the Chinese have the same procedure. At least one article on the Xinhua site, as Li Bin argues in Science and Gobal Security, described an exercise with a mobile ballistic missiles that was very similar. Here is Li’s description:
Another article on Xinhua News Agency’s website describes details of an exercise of patrol and retaliation of the Chinese strategic nuclear force. According to this article, the surviving missile TELs began their patrol after absorbing nuclear attacks; the missiles carried nuclear warheads and the warheads were put on the missiles on the fifth day in bad weather after the patrol began; the missile was simulated to be launched on the eighth day.