China’s New Missile Force: New Ambitions, New Challenges (Part 1)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 14

Simultaneous missile launches at the PLA Rocket Force's June 27th "Sky Sword" exercise.

At the end of 2015 the missile branch of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Second Artillery Force (第二炮兵部队), was formally elevated to a full service and renamed the Rocket Force (火箭军; PLARF) part of a sweeping drive to improve the PLA’s joint operations, command and control, and combat effectiveness.

The establishment of the PLARF signals the increasing importance of conventional and nuclear missiles to PLA warfighting and deterrence capabilities. It also foreshadows continued, substantial investment in missile force modernization at both tactical and strategic levels in the years ahead.

Since its creation, the PLARF has made notable progress in upgrading missile capabilities, reorganizing command and control systems, developing realistic combat training for its troops, and growing its pool of talent. However, deep-seated challenges remain in all these areas. This two-part series will examine the rationale for the PLARF’s creation, its mission, and the challenges that stand in its way. The challenges are real, and could frustrate the PLARF’s aspiration of becoming a world-class missile force if not addressed effectively.

Drivers and Motivations

There are three key drivers behind the creation of the PLARF. One important driver is bureaucratic. The Second Artillery Force has for decades operated in a role similar to the three traditional PLA services (Army, Navy and Air Force) in organizing, equipping and controlling the forces under its command. The creation of the PLARF and the designation of it as a full service should be seen as the formalization of de facto arrangements, responsibilities and relations [1].

Another driver was the need to recognize the increasing importance of missile forces for China’s military strategy and national security. On a conventional level, China’s rapidly developing missile capabilities are giving the PLA more options in planning for regional scenarios, such as those involving Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula. On the strategic level, China’s rapid modernizing nuclear forces have substantially increased the credibility of its nuclear deterrent. Seen in this light, the creation of the PLARF both recognizes the progress of China’s missile capabilities and signals its continued importance going forward. 

A final driver behind the creation of the PLARF may be the need to formalize the responsibilities of the Second Artillery Force so that it is aligned with the comprehensive overhaul of the PLA command structure that was initiated in late 2015. Under this set of reforms, the PLA formalized and redefined the roles of the services such that they would focus on force development instead of commanding operations. Formalization of the roles and responsibilities of the PLARF was particularly important, given its growing role as part of the overall PLA force posture.

New Status, Old Grade

Unlike the Second Artillery Force, which was designated as an independent branch/service arm (独立兵种), the PLARF is now considered a fully fledged service, along with the Army, Navy and the Air Force, and has therefore received the designation junzhong (军种 or service).  The PLA Strategic Support Force is a force (部队) not a service.

This change of status is reflected in the way that official Chinese sources refer to the PLARF. The term used when the Second Artillery Force was included along with the three traditional services was “services and branches” (军兵种), indicating that the missile force was a branch of the PLA instead of a full service. Today, the PLARF is directly referred to as a “service” (军种), both when it is referred to individually and in the company of the other three services (China Military Online, May 17, 2017). In addition, the PLARF acquired its own uniform design and flag shortly after it was elevated to a service, indicating its new status, distinct from the former Second Artillery Force which used PLA Army uniforms and a generic PLA flag (Ministry of National Defense, June 30, 2016; China Military Online, August 18, 2016).

The change in designation, however, does not denote a rise in the bureaucratic status (referred to as “grade”) of the organization within the PLA hierarchy. In fact, even before it became the PLARF, the Second Artillery Force was at the same bureaucratic grade as the three traditional services. Just as before, the PLARF has the highest grade within the PLA organization beneath the supreme Central Military Commission (CMC). It is currently a Theater Command Leader-grade (正战区级) organization (Weibo, June 15, 2017).

New Tip, Same Spear

The PLARF is a critical element of China’s military power. At the inauguration ceremony for the PLARF on December 31, 2015, CCP General Secretary and CMC Chairman Xi Jinping described it as China’s “core force of strategic deterrence (战略威慑的核心力量); a strategic support (战略支撑) for China’s great power status; and an important cornerstone (重要基石) of its national security” (Xinhua, January 1, 2016). The strategic requirement for the new force is to be prepared to carry out “comprehensive deterrence and warfighting” (全域慑战) operations with “both nuclear and conventional” (核常兼备) capabilities. In order to achieve this, Xi ordered the PLARF to enhance “credible and reliable nuclear deterrence and counterstrike capabilities” (可信可靠的核威慑和核反击能力); “medium and long range precision strike capabilities” (中远程精确打击力量); and the ability to contribute to “strategic balance” (战略制衡) between China and its main strategic competitors.

In many ways, as the successor organization of the Second Artillery Force, the PLARF represents continuity as much as change. There is clear continuity in terms of core mission (strategic deterrence, nuclear counterattack and precision strike), capabilities requirements (both nuclear and conventional missiles) and future aspirations [2].

However, the elevation of PLA’s missile forces has created a more expansive role for PLARF than its predecessor. Organizational reform and technological progress have made what were mere aspirations for the Second Artillery Force into key requirements for the PLARF. The PLARF is expected to prepare for, and carry out if necessary, a diverse range of warfighting and deterrence operations, either independently or as part of a joint effort. According to one PLA source,  “[the establishment of the PLARF] will certainly put forward higher requirements with respect to the construction of [China’s] strategic missile forces” (China Military Online, January 2, 2016).

PLARF Missions

The PLARF has two key missions: strategic deterrence and conventional warfighting. In terms of strategic deterrence, the PLARF is responsible for deterring nuclear attacks or coercion against China by signalling a credible nuclear second-strike capability. This signalling can be delivered through a variety of means, including military exercises, media campaigns, military parades, and force deployments. If strategic deterrence fails and China comes under nuclear attack, the PLARF is responsible for carrying out nuclear counterattack “either independently or together with the nuclear forces of other [PLA] services” (State Council Information Office, January 2009).

In its conventional warfighting role, the PLARF is responsible for “conducting medium- and long-range precision strikes” with land-based missiles against “key strategic and operational targets of the enemy” (State Council Information Office, January 2009). PLA missile strategy specifies that its conventional missile force is to be used against high-threat and high-value enemy targets, such as reconnaissance, intelligence, command and control electronic warfare, anti-air, and logistics systems [3].   

The strategic requirement for the PLARF to be ready for “comprehensive deterrence and warfighting” operations suggests that the PLARF will have to develop a full spectrum of missile capabilities. This would require advanced missile technologies, appropriate doctrines and key supporting systems, such as command and control, communications, intelligence, reconnaissance, targeting, and tracking platforms.   

Nuclear Modernization

The PLARF’s establishment marks a milestone in China’s nuclear modernization drive, which has made significant progress since the early 2000s. China continues to develop its nuclear forces both in terms of size and quality. However, despite an estimated doubling of its number of nuclear warheads, from around 145 in 2006 to 270 in 2017, China’s nuclear arsenal is still dwarfed by the United States’ arsenal of 6,800 warheads [4]. The slow but steady growth in the size of China’s nuclear arsenal has been accompanied by a rapid modernization of its nuclear delivery capabilities, which are becoming increasingly diversified, mobile and resilient.

To raise the credibility of China’s land-based nuclear deterrent, the PLARF has deployed mobile, solid-fueled missile systems to increase the mobility and survivability of its nuclear forces. The most notable recent additions in this regard include the dual-capable DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), the off-road-capable DF-31AG intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) (Sina, July 24, 2017), and the powerful next generation DF-41 ICBMs (People’s Daily, November 28, 2017).  

The solid-fueled DF-26 is designed to perform both nuclear and conventional missions against land and sea targets, including large ships (Ministry of National Defense, April 28). Its deployment highlights the PLARF’s growing regional strategic deterrence and conventional precision strike capabilities and options. Both DF-31AG and DF-41 ICBMs are highly mobile and survivable, and are capable of carrying multiple warheads including independently targetable vehicles (MIRVs).

In addition to land-based nuclear missiles, the PLA is also working to develop sea- and air-based nuclear deterrent as part of an emerging nuclear triad consisting of land-based nuclear missile systems, nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), and strategic bombers [5].

Dr. Bates Gill is Professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies at Macquarie University.  He has had a 30-year career as scholar, policy advisor, and institution-builder with a research focus on Chinese foreign and security policy, US-China relations, and Asia-Pacific security.

Adam Ni is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. His areas of interest include China’s international relations, strategy and security issues. He has worked in various China-related positions in academia, government and the private sector.


[1] A day after the creation of the PLARF, Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Senior Colonel Yang Yujun explained that the name change and elevation of China’s missile forces to a full service branch was because “the Second Artillery Force had in reality shouldered the functional tasks of a service branch.” See Ministry of National Defense, January 1, 2016.

[2] For official characterizations of the Second Artillery Force’s mission, strategic requirements and development aspirations, see State Council Information Office, China’s Military Strategy (Beijing, May 2015), section IV; and The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces (Beijing: April 2013), section II.

[3] See Military Strategy Research Department, PLA Academy of Military Science, Science of Military Strategy (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013, 236.

[4] See Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris, and Matthew G. McKinzie, Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning (Washington, DC: Federation of American Scientists and Natural Resources Defense Council, November 2006), 42, 43, 145; and Global nuclear weapons: Modernization remains the priority, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), July 3, 2017.

[5] For more on China’s SSBN program, see Renny Babiarz, China’s Nuclear Submarine Force, China Brief (Vol 17, Issue 10), July 21, 2017. For a detailed discussion of the motivations and challenges of China’s nuclear-armed submarine program, see Tong Zhao, China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 30, 2016). On the H-20 strategic bomber, see Andreas Rupprecht, The PLA Air Force’s “Silver-Bullet” Bomber Force, China Brief (Vol 17, Issue 10), July 21, 2017.