China’s New Missile Force: New Ambitions, New Challenges (Part 2)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 15

The DF-26 is the PLARF's mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) capable of carrying either a conventional or nuclear warhead (Image Credit-Shephard Media, HK)

This is the second in a series of two articles that examine the establishment of the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) and its implications for PLA warfighting and deterrence capabilities. While part 1 reviewed the drivers and motivations behind the creation of the PLARF and compares it with its predecessor, the Second Artillery Force, this second article evaluates the challenges faced by the PLARF. The authors gratefully acknowledge the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency and its Program on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction for their support of this research.

Xi Jinping called upon the PLARF in 2017 to focus on making “new breakthroughs” by enhancing “strategic deterrence and containment capabilities” (战略遏制能力), raising “combat readiness” (备战实战化水平), and improving “strategic applications” (战略运用) of both its conventional and nuclear missile forces (People’s Daily, December 17, 2017). At the operational level, the PLARF is required to be “ready to fight at any time” (随时能战), “launch on-time” (准时发射), and “effectively destroy [targets]” (有效毁伤) under complex and challenging combat conditions (Military Reporter, April 16). This remains a tall order for the PLARF. To reach these strategic and operational goals, the PLARF will need to overcome a number of challenges, including with respect to missile capabilities, command and control systems, combat training, and personnel development.

Command and Control Challenges

The modernization of China’s conventional and nuclear missile forces has been accompanied by a range of command and control challenges. Indeed, the introduction of new missile systems (such as the DF-26 and DF-41) and the increasing dispersal of land-mobile missiles adds a new layer of complexity and demand on the PLARF’s command and control systems. On a higher level, China’s nuclear command and control system is entering a vastly more complex era, especially with the PLA Navy’s nascent sea-based nuclear deterrent and the upcoming next generation strategic bomber.  

These challenges are compounded by the new command structure announced in early 2016 shortly after the establishment of the PLARF (Xinhua, February 1, 2016). Under this new system, the four services are now only responsible for force development, leaving the conduct of military operations to theater commanders (who report directly to the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission).

At the conventional level, early efforts are underway to integrate PLARF missile bases (divisional size elements) with theater commands under the new joint command structure to improve joint operations. For example, since late 2017, pilot programs are being run to integrate the information and command systems of PLARF missile bases and theater commands to facilitate joint theater-level exercises in 2018 (PLA Daily, February 6). As part of the pilot, one particular missile base has been integrated into the “theater joint operations command structure” (战区联合作战指挥体系) and the “theater joint operational command information system” (战区联合作战指挥信息) (PLA Daily, February 6). In addition, this particular missile base has created operational clusters (作战集群) for joint exercises to improve joint effects (联合效能).

There is also evidence that theater commanders now have command over missile force units, at least at the conventional level. The Commander of the Eastern Theater Command, General Liu Yuejun, in an interview shortly after the establishment of the joint theater command system, stated that “[the Eastern Theater Command] is responsible for commanding theater Army, Navy, Air Force, PLARF and other armed forces in joint operations and military operations other than war” (PLA TV, March 4, 2016). While he did not differentiate between the PLARF’s nuclear and conventional forces, for reasons discussed above his command authority almost certainly does not extend to nuclear forces.

One practical obstacle to joint theater command exercising command and control over missile bases is that some missile bases have geographic boundaries overlapping more than one theater command. Another issue is that a number of missile bases have both conventional and nuclear-capable missile systems, such as the dual-capable DF-26 IRBMs. Delegating command authority to theater commands could create ambiguous signals for strategic deterrence purposes, increasing the risk of miscalculation during an escalating crisis or conflict.

On the strategic level, there is no evidence that command and control arrangements for the PLARF’s nuclear forces have changed. A number of Chinese experts, including PLA officers, have been quite adamant that the command and control over nuclear forces remain unchanged and continue to be highly centralized under the CMC (Authors’ interviews, Beijing, April). In practice this means that nuclear missile forces continue to operate under the “skip echelon” system in which the CMC can bypass intermediate commanders and issue direct orders to missile brigade commanders in the field [1].

There are two main reasons to believe that the CMC still retains highly centralized control over PLARF nuclear forces. First, China continues to emphasize the strategic rationale for its nuclear force [2]. Granting command authority over PLARF nuclear forces to theater commanders would send ambiguous signals that may be viewed as a shift away from the official strategy, towards a posture that allows for the tactical use of nuclear weapons (nuclear warfighting). Second, it would be unnecessarily risky to transfer command and control over nuclear forces to a theater-level joint command system that is untested and very much still a work in progress.

Realistic and Practical Combat Training

Realistic and practical combat training is often cited as crucial in building the PLARF into a world-leading missile force. In recent years, the PLARF has stepped up the pace of realistic combat training, with one source emphasizing that “realistic combat training” (实战化训练) and “operational testing and exercises” (作战检验演习) have been “normalized within the PLARF” (People’s Daily, December 17, 2017).

Evidence suggests that the PLARF leadership, like many other parts of the PLA, is pushing for a training culture with stronger realistic and practical elements (PLA Daily, March 8). This effort includes the use of military training supervision and inspection teams to ensure training quality (PLA Daily, February 23), and the regularization of confrontational exercises with realistic and competent opposing forces to improve training outcomes (PLA Daily, May 14).

The PLARF’s training and exercises have focused on joint operations (PLA Daily, February 6), brigade attacks, sustained offensive operations, long distance and cross-regional mobility operations (PLA Daily, February 5), and operations in complex terrain, weather (PLA Daily, January 31) and electromagnetic environments (PLA Daily, January 18). Since 2016, the PLARF have formalized the “Sky Sword” (天剑) series, consisting of ten missile force combat training exercises annually, including joint operations training with other services. For example, in the 2016 iteration of Sky Sword, the PLARF trained alongside of the PLAAF as well as against it as the opposing force (Observe, May 30). Inter-service interoperability and coordination and joint strike campaigns are highlighted as priority areas for this year’s Sky Sword (Xinhua, May 30).

The importance of realistic training is especially pronounced given the rapid modernization of PLARF’s equipment and weapons. The ability to operate quickly and effectively, in the words of one launch battalion commander, “depends on the level of informatization of weapon equipment as well as [the experience gained from] major training exercise missions” (China Military Online, January 17). At the missile base level, the increased sophistication of command and control technology has also called for more training in order to best leverage information and data systems for the generation of combat power (PLA Daily, April 1).

Human Talent Pool

Closely related to the need for effective and realistic training and exercises is the PLARF’s human talent and human resources challenge. Missile force operations require high quality human input in the form of experienced operators, commanders, scientists, technicians, and other support staff. According to one PLARF officer, “the Rocket Force has vigorously implemented its talent development project and achieved fine results,” and that the “transformation of the Rocket Force” is based on the increasing pool of talent and innovation (PLA Daily, March 16). Despite this rosy picture, many PLARF units still suffer from shortage of high quality personnel, including junior commanders, non-commissioned officers (NCOs), and technical staff for its new equipment (PLA Daily, May 3).

One priority area highlighted is the development of in-house missile experts and technicians. According to one PLA source, the PLARF has made a substantial progress in the development of technical and scientific talent in support of its mission (China Military Online, June 19, 2017). First, the PLARF has rationalized the allocation of missile experts to eliminate the “phenomenon of over-concentration of missile experts in non-combat units.” Second, the PLARF has substantially increased the number of technical experts in both combat operations and support roles, and introduced a whole new series of professional disciplines for training purposes. Third, the PLARF is cultivating a new generation of missile experts to take over from the older generation with an estimated over 90 percent of current PLARF missile experts being middle-aged or younger.  

In addition to missile experts, the PLARF has also focused on improving training for NCOs and missile operators. For instance, in recent years the PLARF Research Academy has been formulating tailored development programs for NCOs in technical, command and management roles (Xinhua, April 11). New models have also been piloted for training missile operators, such as rotational and multi-role training to ensure that operators can perform in multiple positions if necessary (PLA Daily, April 9). The PLARF has also been tightening the supervision of operating processes for missile operations in order to achieve “real combat standards” (实战化标准) (PLA Daily, March 13).


Since its establishment in late 2015, the PLARF has made notable progress in upgrading its conventional and nuclear missile capabilities, reorganizing command and control systems, developing realistic combat training for its troops, and building a pool of human talent necessary for effective missile force operations. However, as highlighted above, challenges remain in all these areas. They will need to be tackled successfully if the PLARF is to realize its aspiration of becoming the top missile force in the world and fulfill its missions across a wide spectrum of deterrence and warfighting scenarios.

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] For details on the command and control systems of China’s nuclear forces, see Bates Gill, James Mulvenon, and Mark Stokes, “The Chinese Second Artillery Corps: Transition to Credible Deterrence,” in The PLA as Organization v1.0., eds. James C. Mulvenon and Andrew N. D. Yang (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2002), 510-586, at 521.

[2] See, for example, 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 III.