We’ve had a lively discussion about the Chinese-manufactured WS51200 TEL that showed up in the DPRK’s April 15 military parade, carrying something very pointy. I wanted to weigh in with a few observations about the Wanshan Special Vehicle Company, the WS51200 model, the MTCR and TELs in general.
First, let’s be clear about who makes the WS51200. The Hubei Sanjiang Space Wanshan Special Vehicle Co is wholly-owned subsidiary of the state-run China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, which manufactures ballistic missiles for the Chinese military. This is not some obscure vehicle manufacturer in China: this is a state-owned defense firm.
Late update | 24 April 2012 Oh, I hate being wrong — but I have to conclude that the sales figures for flatbed transporters probably refer to a different line of products than the WS-series, leaving us back at square one on WS-series sales. I still suspect that, until North Korea placed its order, the WS-series existed to serve the needs of a single customer: The People’s Liberation Army. But I overlooked the other parts of the civilian business.
As far as I can tell, three or four Chinese ballistic missiles use Wanshan TELs: the DF-11, DF-16, DF-21 and probably the DF-31. According to sales data cumulative to 2007 and 2009, Wanshan seems to sell about 50 vehicles are year. Looking at the expansion in launchers for DF-11, DF-16 and DF-21 and DF-31 TELs, my best guess is that Wanshan has no civilian customers. According to the website, we know the Wanshan Special Vehicle Company had sold 100 vehicles by 2007 and 200 vehicles by 2009.
Those numbers coincide pretty closely with the added launchers reported in the annual Chinese Military Power, published by the Department of Defense. By my calculation, China added 90-100 launches of these four types in 2008-2009, precisely what Wanshan reports as its sales over the same period.
The numbers for the preceding period — though 2007 — also work out closely (90-100) if you count all the DF-21s as getting shiny new TELs. There is a lot of rounding here and there, so take all this with a grain of salt. Still, the overall point is very clear: To a first approximation, until North Korea placed its order, the Wanshan Special Vehicle existed to serve the needs of a single customer: The People’s Liberation Army.
Second, let’s also be clear about how the Wanshan Special Vehicle Co. came to be Northeast Asia’s leading manufacturer of transporter-erector-launchers.
In 199, the United States spotted a Belarus-manufactured MAZ 547V sitting outside at Nanyuan. The MAZ 547V is the TEL for the SS-20. Wanshan most likely used this TEL as part of its development of the WS-series and the external resemblances are evident.
The United States was clear at the time that the MAZ 547V was a Category II system under the MTCR. (Neither Belarus nor China were, or are, members of the MTCR.) Belarus officials confirmed the sale and did not dispute the origin of the MAZ 547V, explaining that “The chassis was designed as a missile launcher but is now sold primarily as an ‘off-road truck’ used in hauling jet fuel at airfields or coal from mines.” Given the appearance of the TEL at a missile production facility, Chinese officials clearly were not using it to haul coal.
US law did not provide for sanctions on the transfer of Category II systems (which are subject to less restrictive criteria than Category I items), so the US simply complained to Belarus.
The MTCR Annex clearly controls “Vehicles designed or modified for the transport, handling, control, activation and launching of the systems specified in 1.A” as a Category II item. This is the verabatim language used in the UNSCR sanctions document on North Korea, which make no distinction as far as I can tell between Cat I and II systems.
(a) “Designed or modified” describes equipment, parts or components which, as a result of “development,” or modification, have specified properties that make them fit for a particular application. “Designed or modified” equipment, parts, components or “software” can be used for other applications. For example, a titanium coated pump designed for a missile may be used with corrosive fluids other than propellants.
Notice that the example given — a titanium coated pump — demonstrates that legitimate civilian applications do not alter the controlled nature of the item. The only test is whether a TEL has ” have specified properties that make them fit for a particular application.” Possible civilian uses are irrelevant to this discussion.
There are a number of modifications to a TEL beyond the very rugged chassis designed to preserve the missile while traveling off-road. The MTCR Handbook gives, as an example, the integration of an erector in the chassis. The news reporting related to the Belarus sale listed other possibilities: all-wheel independent suspension, higher ground clearance, driver-controlled central tire inflation and deflation systems; and large-diameter, wide-profile, variable-inflation tires.
Driver-controlled central tire inflation and deflation systems is my favorite. Did you know tire inflation systems are on the US munitions list?
The point is that a vehicle like this is designed with a number of special features that distinguish it from a run-of-the-mill off-road vehicle. The existence of a few civilian applications for the same technologies does not change the fact that the item is controlled.
Finally, let me close by noting that the sale of launch support vehicles is not a trivial matter.
North Korea, as this MTCR paper distributed by the United States makes clear, is dependent on foreign suppliers for heavy-duty vehicle chassis. (Warning: Wikileaks!)
In 2011, Joe Bermudez reported that North Korea’s “Second Machine Industry Bureau oversaw the contract with Chinese firms for the development and production of TELs and support vehicles based upon Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ) designs (for example, the MAZ-543) for the Nodong, Musudan and Taepodong/Unha systems.”
The Chinese executing the contract certainly knew who they were dealing with and why. Rugged, off-road TELs dramatically increase the area in which North Korea can move its ballistic missile force. Over the past few years, North Korea appears to be investing in an actual, deployed missile force that is more than a mere abstract capability. TELs are an important element of such a capability.
The best account of this transformation is Joe Bermudez’s June 2011 article in Jane’s Intelligence Review entitled, “Behind the lines – North Korea’s ballistic missile units.”