A presidential namecheck from Xi Jinping and an eight-million-yuan (US$1.17 million) cash award to Qian Qihu, a top engineer with the People’s Liberation Army, have shed light on some of the best-kept secrets about the force’s nuclear weapon storage systems.

Last week, Qian, a Soviet Union-groomed defense engineering expert, was fêted by state leaders at a national award presentation ceremony held inside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People for his extraordinary contributions to ensuring the safety of the PLA’s nuclear arsenal.

Qian designs the storage facilities for the PLA’s strategic nuclear warheads, built deep beneath arid, craggy hills in remote northwestern China.

Qian’s theories and design guarantee these weapons storage and security systems, cornerstones of the PLA’s nuclear counterattack capabilities, can withstand the head-on impact of a falling 747 passenger jet or even future hypersonic missiles.

This is according to Chinese papers which hail these nearly indestructible structures as the “underground great wall” that buttresses China’s national security and nuclear deterrence.

While mountain rock is normally thick enough to protect the nuclear warheads and their associated launch and maintenance equipment, entrances and exits of these massive vaults and bunkers are still vulnerable to attacks.

Screenshot 2019-01-15 at 4.00.50 PM
A screen grab of what is believed to be a PLA nuclear bunker in western China’s Xinjiang region. Photo: Sina via China Central Television

The PLA’s nuclear arsenal may face threats from a potential adversary, as Beijing renounced its right to launch any pre-emptive nuclear attack after it detonated its first atomic bomb in Xinjiang on October 16, 1964.

This creates a need for the PLA’s nuclear storage to feature almost impregnable walls and doors against attacks of the same kind, so that the force can strike back with its own strategic weapons.

The Beijing-based Global Times notes that, in the event of other lines of defense – missile shield and air defense systems – all failing to intercept incoming hypersonic missiles or bunker-busters, Qian’s design can still help protect and preserve Beijing’s weapon of last resort.

“As the Chinese idiom goes, the thickening of a shield must closely follow the sharpening of a spear. Our defense engineering must keep evolving when attack weapons continue to pose new challenges,” noted Qian in an interview with state media after receiving the top award in national science development.

Qian also voiced concerns over the Pentagon’s modernization of low-yield nuclear warheads to be used in sorties and surgical strikes, as the Trump administration has made it easier for the weapon’s deployment.

Read more: Presidential namechecks, giant cash checks for PLA scientists