China's female missile launchers, winning battles and hearts

Zhang Tao

BEIJING, Aug. 26 -- At a secret location, somewhere in China, a huge metal shed bakes in the sun, until freezing "rain" suddenly pours from the roof, drenching two lines of soldiers,rigidly at attention in their green battle fatigues.

There is nothing to tell between the stance, stature or attitude of the two lines: one, as tandard file of stony-faced Chinese militia men, the other, a rank of equally intimidatinggirls with identically bobbed hair. Behind each rank lurk one massive military truck, on which lies a huge white missile, horizontal and inert.

It was the middle of the afternoon, Aug. 15 and missile launch training was just beginning for a brigade of China's Rocket Force, formerly known as the Second Artillery Force of the People's Liberation Army.

A whistle blows and both teams swarm methodically over the leviathan weaponry. The girls move rapidly and precisely on and around one of the trucks, every bit as effective andefficient as their male counterparts.

Soon, the missiles are vertical but there is no let up in activity; more equipment is installedon the pedestal and what was once a benign cylinder on the back of truck becomes aweapon of massive destructive potential. A launcher begins entering the codes andcoordinates needed to send the rocket on the chosen trajectory.

Launcher Long Xiaohui and commander Wang Xiaotong then retreat from the scene bearing with them a heavy control unit.

"5, 4, 3, 2, 1, fire!"

Everyone holds their breath as Long presses a button in the unit.

Nothing happens.

The rockets on the trucks do not move. The earth does not shake. No smoke billows, nofire belches from the thrusters. But the screens in the shed show missiles flying skyward,descending on some virtual buildings and leveling them to the ground.

"The training is a success," said Long Xiaohui, 21, from southwest China's Sichuan Province, excitement glowing from her previously emotionless face. She and other girls aresoaked to the skin, but no one cares about that.

There is so much more to Long's job than just pressing a button. She is responsible forexamining and testing all the equipment to ensure the missile is ready for firing. Theresponsibility is a heavy one.

The brigade established China's first female missile launch company in 2011, recruiting about 35 young soldiers, mainly for handling tactical ballistic missiles. Current membershave an average age of 24.

The company has fired more than 10 different types of missile in training and drills,according to the brigade.

Long says there is no difference in the training, duties and responsibilities between maleand female launchers. Drills can be held at any time regardless of weather or location, shesaid.

"Our training is to make us ready for a real battle," she said.

Long recalled how her team were once trained outdoors for four days in torrential rain,without respite, and many got sick, despite full medical support. "We were sick, but no oneabandoned the mission," she said.

Before the training, they are often asked to run a hundred meters at full speed andimmediately perform at least 30 push-ups, "in order to simulate the physical and mentalstrain of real battle situations."

They have practised launches in darkness, wearing masks in clouds of poisonous gas, andblindfolded.

"We work hard to make the training environment as much like a real battle as we can, sothat the soldiers can enhance their fighting capacity and become better in completing theirtasks," Zhao Jinsong, chief of staff of the brigade, told Xinhua.

The woman also receive fitness training, and are skilled in armed combat. They yomp formiles over difficult terrain and learn the survival skills needed to stay alive alone in ahostile environment.

Wang Xiaotong, head of the "Mulan" company, is immensely proud to show off the medalshe and her team won in the brigade's tug-of-war competition, beating the men. Sheadmits they had 25 women rivaling 20 men, but her pride is undiminished.

"In training, I sometimes doubt whether they are women or men," joked Lu Zishu, the newpolitical instructor of the company, and the first man to occupy the role. When asked aboutthe advantages of female launchers over men, Lu has no hesitation: "Good educationalbackground, fine minds."

Most of them attended junior college, some have a bachelor degree or higher.

A big worry of Lu is that many of his female soldiers remain unmarried. Though the armyhas no shortage of single men, there are some restrictions on military personnel datingeach other. Lu said he plans to organize some dating events for the girls to help them meetcivilians

Out of uniform, Lu's launch team are just ordinary girls like any other. They love singing,dancing and surfing the Internet, according to Lu.

In the brigade's talent center, soldiers can learn a number of subjects during their sparetime, such as sand painting, calligraphy and music.

Launcher Xu Ye, 23, spends most of her spare time playing electronic keyboard at thecenter's music workshop, where there is even a recording studio. She majored in music atcollege before joining the army two years ago. Along with other soldiers, she formed a rockband named "Fire."

"We write songs and sing. We have hip-hop dancers and we put on a great show," she said.

Last year, her band won the China Central Television reality show "Who's the Star of theSoldiers?" and some of their songs, such as "Brothers," have become big hits in the army.

"Music is my hobby, but the battlefield is my real stage," Xu said.