03 July 2014

China’s Strategic Rocket Force: Sharpening the Sword (Part 1 of 2)

Andrew S. Erickson and Michael S. Chase, “China’s Strategic Rocket Force: Sharpening the Sword (Part 1 of 2),” Jamestown China Brief 14.13 (3 July 2014).

  • The Second Artillery has made significant progress, particularly in modernizing its hardware, but also operations and training.
  • Its main mission remains deterrence, especially toward U.S. intervention in a regional conflict.
  • This deterrence mission increasingly emphasizes conventional capabilities, but nuclear weapons have also been modernized to ensure their continued effectiveness.

On January 22, the website Chinese military newspaper PLA Daily published photos of a People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) unit engaged in field training with a DF-31 road-mobile ICBM launcher (China Military Online, January 22). The photos did not reveal a new capability (China began deploying road-mobile ICBMs more than seven years ago), nor were they likely intended as a warning to a particular state, although some regional media interpreted them as a threat (South China Morning Post, January 23; Chosun Ilbo, January 26). However, their publication highlights an important trend: increased confidence in the conventional and nuclear capabilities of China’s strategic missile force. As context and military missions change, PLASAF has remained relevant by developing growing conventional deterrence through demonstrating capability to prevail in a regional conflict and preventing U.S. intervention therein.

PLASAF, which controls the country’s land-based nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles and ground-launched land-attack cruise missiles, is an increasingly formidable force. Cutting-edge industrial capabilities and long-term strategic prioritization make it the world’s “most active and diverse ballistic missile development program” (National Air and Space Intelligence Center [NASIC], Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, 2013 [PDF], p. 3). China is increasing missile numbers and diversity; testing and introducing longer-range, more accurate, improved-payload missiles, while simultaneously upgrading older systems; and establishing new units. The latest U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) report on military and security developments involving China, released in early June, underscored the continuing modernization of China’s nuclear and conventional missile capabilities. Reflecting the impressive progress China has made in this area, it described China’s ballistic and cruise missile development programs as “comparable to other international top-tier producers,” an impressive achievement that is giving China a variety of new and increasingly potent capabilities (DoD, Annual Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2014 [PDF], June, p. 46).

Substantial, rapid improvements have yielded not only a sophisticated, survivable arsenal of nuclear missiles capable of putting regional and continental U.S. targets at risk, but also the world’s most numerous, diverse and comprehensive conventional, ballistic and cruise missile force. Today, these capabilities make PLASAF “China’s core force for strategic deterrence” (Zhongguo zhanlüe weishe de hexin liliang). 

This two-article series provides an in-depth look at PLASAF developments and highlights its emergence as an increasingly dynamic and important component of the PLA. Part one examines PLASAF’s growing conventional precision strike capabilities and doctrine. Part two will focus on the modernization of PLASAF’s nuclear deterrent capability and personnel and training issues. …